Urban archeology in the South End's green belt camps

Winter comes to Beacon Hill.

Most urban campers vacate to downtown shelters. A few struggle on under tarps, tents, bridges, sometimes lean-tos, shacks of salvaged or stolen lumber. Weather changes. Life's harder.

Business goes on in the woods.

Around the corner, there's an encampment of three men, two maybe armed with guns. There was a shot earlier this year. One resident is an Asian guy, "Uncle," a heroin dealer.

Earlier this year, a young Latino man tented this spot. A neighbor called one day and asked if I'd go into the woods. Her house was broken into. I called a pal who does security work. The three of us climbed down the ravine. We found the man cooking breakfast over charcoal, a pack of pork chops. He'd eat them cold that day, maybe tomorrow.

"I'm cooking breakfast," he said. He didn't speak much English, but invited my neighbor to look inside his tent. There was no sign of her laptop or other items. I figured he was an illegal immigrant, he seemed to be just trying to get by without being discovered. He's gone now, driven off by Uncle.

Urban forestry is archeology. The saddest camp I know was where a man and a woman set up hospice, an oxygen tank and respirator from King County Public Health. There were lots of pharmaceutical vials of medicine bearing the man's name. The woman kept personal hygiene items. There was a Bible. This was a home, built beneath a 30-foot tarp. I found old beer cans in the ivy, but the camp didn't have a sense of alcohol. One night, a neighbor heard shouts and called the cops. The couple was assaulted. Their home collapsed by and by, in the weather.

Most camps I've been in were overtaken by drugs.

Uncle is a dangerous guy. So is "Mr. Big" - my nickname for the 5-foot 10-inch, stocky, bald, late-30s Latino who's always clean and controls a chunk of the heroin biz. I suspect these two guys overlap. Mr. Big always has an entourage, a couple of Latino thugs, a black guy who speaks fluent Spanish, sometimes a tall, skinny, African-American teenage boy, and a 30-something female Caucasian prostitute. He's got street credentials and openly discusses deals.

There's a lot of heroin in Chinatown/ID, and Pioneer Square, Fifth Avenue, Capitol Hill, the U-District. In Ballard, heroin is the "quiet drug": common, few talk.

Last spring, city government closed Deano's and Chocolate City on Madison, up in the East Precinct. African-American dealers who hung out at the clubs plus their white and black clientele moved to 23rd and Union, then along Dearborn where Caucasian, Asian, and Latino dealers were already in the thick of things.

Business just got bigger. Who are the customers?

Over four hours one Saturday, up and down Dr. José Rizal Bridge, I counted 21 players. Gals ranged from attractive young women - one a pale skinned brunette who looked all of 16 - to careworn, 30 pushing 60, physically sick prostitutes. Guys varied from young men in their 20s to old men in their 40s.

Some were well-dressed, most not but physically clean. A handful looked like they slept in the Jungle. The rest don't live on Beacon Hill. If their total was added to the usual suspects, it's a pretty even split between white, black, Asian, and Latino.

The drug trade is an equal opportunity abuser.

One camp I'd call scary. Last July, an EarthCorps crew prepped a slope of Dr. José Rizal Park for planting - Oct. 27, the three-year project was done. Off trail is a ledge, a panoramic view. I sifted through a 6-foot wide, foot-deep pile of broken glass, shredded aluminum, syringes, needle caps, rotting underwear, and busted electronics. The ledge is used by people who drink cheap, strong alcohol, smoke crack, shoot up smack. Prostitutes turn tricks. One pitched a tent for dates nearby - neighbors cleaned that site last spring, covering it with limbs of a fallen evergreen.

I heard a guy land next to me, a runner for Uncle. Another stood at the top of the ledge, a gaunt, slight fellow, brown eyes set, acting tough. Behind, EarthCorps hauled wood chips down a trail. I turned my back on the junkie above and said emphatically to the one at hand, "It's a cleanup."

"Oh, cleanup," he answered. He was half a foot shorter than me, lanky, embarrassed, and looked like he'd been wearing his blue nylon gym suit for days. He avoided eye contact, the frown on his round face more awkward than a threat.

"Now I have to clean over there," I pointed to a spot beside him. A ripped up, pink-and-white pinstriped polyester shirt rotted in the crook of a broadleaf maple.

"Okay," he said. He disappeared around a bend. His pal followed.

I left with a souvenir that day, a Chinese hunting knife, sans handle, a closely honed 9-inch stainless steel blade. You could gut a deer with it. I'll wrap it as a gift to myself for Christmas; my wife won't appreciate Santa's sense of humor. Two of the other six knives I've recovered hang in my kitchen.

The weirdest thing I've hauled from the woods is the bottom half of a sheep skull used ritualistically. There's red candle wax in its tooth sockets. I figure some guys were practicing Santeria.

Camps tend to be trashed, on Queen Anne or Beacon Hill, West Seattle, Magnolia, or Carkeek. The Central Core Alcohol Impact Area (AIA) pushes hardcore drunks into South End woods where they spread garbage. Beacon Hill neighbors tallied brands and containers last summer: of 868 intact beverage containers found, 502 - about 60 percent - were for products banned in the AIA. With big work parties this fall, the amount of bottles and cans became overwhelming to sort and track. A realistic estimate of the empties taken from Dr. José Rizal and Lewis Parks, the greenbelt around the Bayview stairway, and other public places would triple the tally, with a consistent breakdown of AIA-covered beverages. The data has been shared with the Department of Neighborhoods.

One local merchant who sells products favored by chronic inebriants claimed in a meeting this fall that the drunks are going to SODO and coming back to Beacon Hill, except neighbors have tracked guys going from the woods to Beacon Hill stores and then back into the woods with their beverage of choice.

Habitual street drunks from Chinatown/ID, which is covered by the AIA, are going to SODO and returning to that neighborhood with the banned products, according to data also shared with the Department of Neighborhoods. Only one Beacon Hill store has agreed not to sell the cheap, high alcohol brands, like Steel Reserve and Old English 800.

Some activists suggest trashcans and portable toilets for camps. That won't work. Most camps are inaccessible. Those close to parks have facilities. A few say camps can organize with rules like SHARE/WHEEL's Tent City. People in the woods don't live in Tent City, where they can't drink or do drugs. Some don't want rules.

I've asked activists to walk the woods, only one has, a local guy with a big heart. He told me he supports people camping near my house; he doesn't live in the neighborhood.

There's one guy I've met who sums up the homeless junkie. His name is Thao. Thao picked up a hand grenade in Cambodia. It blew off his right forearm, a couple of fingers on his left hand. He wears beat up sneakers, no socks, ripped up Chinese military dungarees. He'd attack you if he found you alone.

Occupied camps are dangerous. For those who set them up, unless they're armed, crazy, and dangerous, their camps will be taken over by armed, crazy, and dangerous thugs at the low end of the drug industry. It's especially hard for women who try to live in the woods. Most have been or will be sexually assaulted.

Camps attract violence. We must clean them up.

The Mountains to Sound Greenway Trail is a year away. Four restoration projects are active on the west side of Beacon Hill. To the east, the Cheasty Greenspace has dedicated stewards. Our public stairs have advocates.

The forest will be better yet.

City policy is to stop camps from becoming entrenched. Controversy around a cleanup on Queen Anne suspended sweeps: they will continue, else the woods will lose the safety we've gained.

There is another path. Let's follow that trail.

Craig Thompson may be reached at this link

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