Durkan and School Board Directors at Odds Over Bitter Lake Encampment

by Ari Robin McKenna

Trigger warning: Threats of violence, profanity. This article contains actual threats made to the school board president and her family that are both violent and profane.

Out of 107 Seattle Public School sites, two had unhoused people living on or near them with students set to return for hybrid, in-person learning last month. This was during an ongoing pandemic that has increased the number of people living outside in tents by 50%. One encampment was at Meany Middle School on Capitol Hill at the edge of the Central District, where 41 unhoused people accepted referrals for temporary housing in April. The other camp is at Broadview Thompson K-8 in the North End, where about 50-60 tents are currently set up on the other side of a recess yard fence, spread out in clusters down a slope towards Bitter Lake.

There are many differences between the two situations, the primary being the pace at which people in the encampments have been rehoused. The key factors in that difference are who owns the land in question — the City of Seattle or Seattle Public Schools (SPS), and the encampments’ relationship to school accessibility. At Meany Middle School, tents had been set up for months at Miller Playfield — which is Seattle Parks Department land — and along a path between the school and the field, immediately adjacent to the main entrance of Meany and blocking access to the gym. At Broadview Thompson K-8, the encampment is located behind the school but still on SPS property. Neighbors use the lakeside hill as a community park, and the city has maintained it along with Bitter Lake Playfield — which begins on the other side of a dirt path just 20-60 yards past the existing tents. Broadview Thompson students who lived nearby used to access the school through the recess yard gate, but it has since been locked, meaning they need to walk about 8 blocks to the school’s front entrance.

Labeled Google Maps image of homeless encampment on grounds of school
A homeless encampment on the grounds of Broadview Thompson K-8 School has stirred conflict between Seattle School Board Director Chandra Hampson and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. (Screenshot from Google Maps; map graphic by Ari Robin McKenna)

When SPS School Board Director Chandra Hampson found out that the City had scheduled an “encampment removal” at Meany Middle School on Capitol Hill, she — along with SPS School Board Operations Chair Director, Zachary DeWolf — posted a statement decrying sweeps. Hampson and DeWolf mentioned that one of the people in the encampment was in fact a Meany Middle School alum, and took aim at a perception that the unhoused are a separate population from the general public. Referencing the thousands of homeless SPS students, Hampson and DeWolf said, “there is not a delineation between our brothers and sisters and children living on the streets and those in our schools.” They went on to demand that no sweeps occur, “on school grounds, adjacent or elsewhere in this city.”

Hampson then received a long email from Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan that expressed disappointment that Hampson had not reached out personally, saying “When we have questions, issues or concerns  — we pick up the phone.” After six paragraphs detailing the Durkan administration’s accomplishments relating to both Seattle’s schools and the “homeless crisis,” Durkan wrote: “The City is happy to partner with you.” Yet Durkan also went on to allude to the Broadview Thompson K-8 encampment at Bitter Lake and SPS’s “obligations as a property owner,” saying, “I truly hope you succeed in moving everyone from SPS properties … and that no one declines the offer of shelter.”

At around this time, some members of the Seattle media landscape began to focus on the story and SPS Board President Hampson for the statement she and DeWolf had made. Kara Kostanich wrote a number of alarmist pieces about the camps for KOMO News. Ari Hoffman wrote an article about Hampson and dedicated at least one tweet thread to her. Then Jason Rantz showed up on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and spoke Hampson’s full name and DeWolf’s last name.

Unsurprisingly, weeks of vitriol and violent threats — mostly directed at Hampson — have followed, and continue up to the writing of this article. Here’s a sample of what Hampson shared with the Emerald:

“You stupid fucking bitch I hope I don’t find out where you live, because if I do, watch out.”

“You realize how fucking idiotic you look for making those poor kids go thru another door for the sake of homeless …Shame on you old cunt. If I find your address you’re done for bitch.”

“You are moron, take your personal views and shove them down your family’s throats. Leave the parents and their children out of your misguided social agenda. You were not elected to advocate for the homeless, you were hired to represent the children.”

Hampson, who like all board directors receives up to a $4,800 annual stipend for their trouble, recently said, “It just makes me really sad that I’m having to defend myself against these people claiming that I’m harming our children, not because I’m insulted, but because it minimizes my ability to continue to do that work for children.”

Hampson at first tried to filter the filth flooding the Facebook page she uses to stay in touch with constituents, but eventually she couldn’t keep up. She says there were a few Seattle moms who were taking their comments to a place where Hampson didn’t feel like she could engage meaningfully, but that most of those attacking her were from outside the state. Hampson shut her page down.

From the Cloud family and Thunderbird Clan of the Winnebago Tribe, Hampson has both HoChunk and Anishinaabe ancestry. She rejects the idea that she has an agenda, but intimated that she (along with Dewolf, who is enrolled in the Chippewa Cree Tribe) and the mayor may see the issue from a culturally distinct viewpoint. “I’m not doing anything unusual. I’m just doing what I was taught. I’m not making this up as I go along. It’s not based on any ideology. It’s just how we know to take care of each other. That to me is credit to the broader and very specific tribal cultures that are at play in my life and the lives of native people throughout this country, that homelessness just shouldn’t be a thing.”

About a week before Meany was supposed to open on April 16 — and contrary to the tone of KOMO’s pieces magnifying the voices of those who had concerns about dangers the encampment presented — the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) came out with a unified statement echoing Hampson and DeWolf’s disapproval of sweeps in general, and the encampment removal scheduled for the Friday before many students would return to the school building. The PTSA said they didn’t want any unhoused person to be relocated somewhere else outside even if it meant there were still unhoused people in front of Meany when school started.

That week three principal organizations worked with the people in the encampments: Homeless Organizing Community Seattle (HOCS), a mutual aid community organization which helps meet the self-professed needs of the unhoused; REACH, which among other things, does outreach to assess the type of shelter most suitable for unhoused individuals and works with the city’s availability for shelter beds and rooms; and the city’s Homeless Outreach Provider Ecosystem (HOPE) — which recently replaced the police-heavy navigation teams — which is the broker that found available beds and living spaces for those near Meany.

By the Friday before many students returned for hybrid, in-person learning, all those living at the Miller Playfield had been relocated or had voluntarily moved on: 40 were rehoused at Executive Hotel Pacific, and one went to a tiny home village. Though it seems possible that Hampson, DeWolf and the Meany PTSA’s statements helped create the conditions for a thorough rehousing of everyone at the encampment near Meany, meanwhile at Broadview Thompson K-8, SPS is literally without HOPE.

Liza Rankin, the SPS board director representing District 1 — where Broadview Thompson K-8 is located — said in a recent conversation with the Emerald during one of her frequent visits to the Bitter Lake encampment site, “Here’s the issue: people experiencing homelessness have established themselves on school district property during a pandemic when schools were closed and lots of options were unavailable to them. This is totally unprecedented. The circumstances of this moment in time have created a scenario that has not had to have been addressed by a school board before. We’re trying to ask the city, can you do outreach, can you provide housing? They won’t do it because it’s our property. But [she said, gesturing toward the tents] they’re Seattle people. The school district doesn’t have resources like that. Instead of saying, ‘How can we help you, school district, because we really care about the well being of children and we really care about housing’ they’re saying, ‘Well that’s not our property, so that’s your problem.’”

In an email to Rankin about the Broadview encampment, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller told the SPS board director, “the City cannot provide shelter resources for private property owners … or SPS property as thousands of unhoused individuals are on City-owned properties. He goes on to offer “technical assistance,” and discusses the costs of rehousing and servicing individuals by setting up a new tiny home village, or by working with JustCare — both of which Sixkiller estimates would cost over $1 million.

School board president Hampson says, “We’re looking for something that we as an institution can uphold over time, so that we aren’t continually in the position of having to pressure humans off of our property who are just looking for a place to live — and that is what our children would expect of us. Children don’t want to see somebody without a place to live.” District 7 School Board Director, Brandon Hersey, agrees, saying, “We can’t teach our children empathy and compassion for others unless we model it ourselves.”

While Hampson and Durkan — who’ve never met in person — have struggled to form a partnership in removing encampments in a humane way, Durkan’s outreach partners have also struggled to orient themselves in relation to the city’s new HOPE outfit. Seven outreach agencies (including REACH) that the city partners with recently balked at their new contracts, writing a letter in which they characterized HOPE as an imposed middle man on their relationships with clients.

photo of Conditions of Entry sign and Park sign
A sign at the Bitter Lake encampment. Contrary to portrayals on some TV media, many parents and neighbors are opposed to sweeps of the homeless camp. (Photo: Chloe Collyer)

Meanwhile, around Bitter Lake Park, some neighbors are anxious, and a few seem to be trying to bring things to a head. Once, the police were called in response to the discovery of a gun that turned out to be an airsoft gun, and once for what was apparently a sword sighting. Neither resulted in an arrest. In another incident related by two encampment residents (but the only of these three events not reported on by KOMO), a man thought to be from the neighboring apartments shot fireworks over the encampment after its residents were asleep. When some unhoused individuals came out of their tents to see why this person had woken them up, the man called the police and said he’d been attacked by the homeless. No arrests were made.

A young, unhoused person named Chris who lives a few feet from Bitter Lake in a tent with his longtime girlfriend has been swept countless times in the last two years. “They always tell you to leave; they never tell you where to go,” he muses. In 2019, the Lynnwood steakhouse he worked for didn’t renew their lease and closed, and that same month the house where they rented a room was renovated back into a single-family home and sold. The couple ended up sleeping outside beside the Ronald United Methodist Church in Shoreline with about 10 other people. Church Pastor Kelly Dahlman-Oeth would often welcome them in the morning, let them use the bathroom, and make them hot coffee.

Then as Chris recalls it, a snow storm approached: “The day that the snowstorm was supposed to happen that night, he [Pastor Kelly]  just showed up and said, “You all come inside tonight. I’m just going to stay here tonight so that you guys don’t have to be out there.” And it’s good because we might have died. I was looking at the spot that we slept at in the morning, and it was completely covered. We would have been miserable the whole night, trying not to freeze to death. And then after that, he just kept doing it, and then he actually got it approved by the city to be a shelter.”

Granted a brief reprieve after a rapid descent to the street, the pair had a period of relative calm until COVID-19 came along. Some of the volunteers were at high risk, and so Pastor Kelly was forced to close the shelter. Chris recalls a rough time afterwards: “Literally just had our blankets. Layer some up and then lay on top of it, and some layered on top of us also.” They made their way to Bitter Lake several months ago but were told by cops to move on. Now that Chris is back he seems grateful. The pair have numerous plastic pots arranged on a wood platform where they grow strawberries and greens.They’re very conscious of being on school property and work at keeping their area clean; and they try not to swear during school hours. “It’s self-interest,” says Chris.

photo of tents with small potted plants in front of them
Chris’ camp includes pots of strawberries and greens. Prior to setting up camp near Broadview Thompson, Chris lived in various encampments throughout the city and has experienced multiple sweeps. “They always tell you to leave; they never tell you where to go,” he says. (Photo: Chloe Collyer)

Tall and eloquent, soft-spoken but with a regal air about him, Chris has plenty of perspective on the political climate that surrounds his tent, this school-owned park, and those who want them to disappear from their midst:

“For some of them, there’s just nothing I would be able to ever say that would change their mind. They’ve got whatever idea in their head and they’re not going to be convinced otherwise. We’re always going to be dangerous or threatening to the kids. Most of them [those who want them swept immediately] — almost all of them — have not ever set foot in this park. They just know what they read online, and what they see on the news about this being a trash-riddled encampment — and obviously that’s not true. But, you know they’re gonna read it because KOMO news reported it or whatever, and they just assume it’s correct. Some of those people are a couple unfortunate events away from being right here with us.”

While Chris is speaking, Rankin walks up. “The regular thing for her [Rankin] to do is just to have us swept and kicked out of here and say we’re a threat to the kids and just be done with it.” Asked if he has anything to say to Rankin, Chris says, looking up from where he’s seated, “Thank you. We really appreciate it. It means a lot.”

A senior citizen named Kay, who lives in an apartment complex across Linden Ave. walks by and stops to talk. She says, “You know you can manufacture fear. I mean if I were really afraid of these people I probably wouldn’t walk the trail every day … [nods towards a nearby housing development]. They’re more likely to get bitten by a duck than get assaulted by one of these [nods toward the encampment tents].” While Kay worries about a mother and a baby in a stroller she’s seen in one of the tents with little room for much else, or about drug use at the encampment, Kay’s fears are more general. “I’m afraid of the volume of drug use in society,” she says. Kay also notes that, “Many people have come down from the houses and given food, water, went on a Costco run.” These generous neighbors are an example of what Hampson credits for motivating her to endure the hate, saying that the “very quiet voices make it very clear to us that we’re doing the right thing.”

A while later Rankin looks out over Bitter Lake, and up towards the Broadview Thomson K-8 fence, where the silhouette of what appears to be a lone middle schooler looks down ponderously on the proceedings. She says, “Some people who just think we should call the police and have them arrested for trespassing are mad that we’re not willing to do that. We know that people can’t be living on school property, but we really want to give them a place to go.”

Because the Bitter Lake encampment is on school property, the city has been reluctant to assist those living there in finding shelter. Many parents and members of the community hope a solution beyond sweeps can be found. District 7 School Board Director Brandon Hersey says, “We can’t teach our children empathy and compassion for others unless we model it ourselves.” (Photo: Chloe Collyer)

Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. You can contact him through his website.

📸 Featured Image: Homeless encampments at Broadview Thompson K-8 in the North End (pictured) and Meany Middle School near the Central District have elicited friction between some Seattle School Board Directors and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. Photo by Chloe Collyer.

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