Twelve acres of forest in Bremerton have trees so thick the greenery creates a canopy protecting anyone below from rain.
Homeless people have lived under those trees for five years. On Thursday, the Kitsap County Sheriff moves in to clear their camp.
The camp, in East Bremerton, is south of a grocery store with other businesses nearby. It’s tucked in a wooded area that most of us would drive by without a thought. Real Change journalist Rosette Royale took a closer look.
“Once you walk in through a path, suddenly you’re inside the trees and the whole atmosphere changes,” he tells me. “There are cedar trees, there are maples, there are alders, and ferns growing.”
Deeper inside the forest he sees a tent, a sagging tarp, soggy clothes hanging on a line, a bicycle without a front wheel, rusted camp stoves, and garbage.
“Even though you’re in this natural environment, it’s clear there are people who have been here,” says Royale.
Unlike Nickelsville in Seattle, this camp is not an organized society with rules.
“It’s really self-determined,” he says. “They make up the rules as they go along.”
The owner of the private property has allowed homeless people to stay there, until now. He made the decision after an increase in complaints from neighboring retailers who cited “aggressive interactions” with campers.
Last year, nearly 300 calls went out from the vicinity for law enforcement or medical emergency services, resulting in 23 police incident reports linked to the encampment.
The property owner hopes to sell the land for $2 million.
The Kitsap County Sheriff’s office has told the dozen or so people who live there they need to clear out by the end of Thursday. For the campers, that means losing their home and the only family they feel they have. They plan to leave without a fight.
As Royale talked with the homeless people, he noticed the way they describe what they liked about the Bremerton camp is the same thing most of us enjoy about the Northwest – the beauty and a connection to nature.
“It’s very easy to believe they are not like us, but actually they’re exactly like us,” he says. “We’re the same people. Some of us go home and we have a key that opens a lock that lets us in a house or an apartment, and some people have to go and unzip a tent and crawl inside it.”
The campers need to clear out by the end of Thursday. The property will be cleaned up Friday and no trespassing signs will be posted.
Agencies that help the homeless in Kitsap County say there are options for the campers, but most plan to scatter to other camps or move out of state.
Amid the ongoing debate about the effectiveness of getting people off the streets and into shelters or housing, King County begins year eight of its 10 year plan to end homelessness – A Roof Over Every Bed.
The plans goals seem unlikely. One week ago, a count of people living on Seattle’s streets found a five percent increase over the previous year.
“I don’t think it was unrealistic as much as it was hopeful. People wanted and still want to address the issue. The name speaks to desire,” says Royale. “How many of us say we want to achieve a goal but don’t quite make the mark?”
Solving homelessness requires more than just housing. He says people need living-wage jobs, access to affordable health care and reliable transportation along with a roof.
“To me the single most thing that can help someone who is homeless, is a connection with another person,” says Royale. “When you make this an us versus them it’s very easy to let that person just fall, fall, tumble, tumble, tumble into a really dark hole that a person can’t get out of.”
By LINDA THOMAS
Real Change publishes the only “street newspaper” in Washington State and the only news organization that consistently focuses on poverty, homelessness, and social justice. In 2011 Real Change had a paid circulation of over 863,000 copies. Vendors pay Real Change 35 cents for each Real Change Newspaper and resell the paper on the street for the dollar cover price plus tips. When you add it all up, vendors collectively earned over $1 million last year.