A total of 41 “homeless campsite hot spots” exist on city-owned property in Kent.
That’s the number of sites the city of Kent’s Public Works Department crews compiled on a map labeled “Homeless campsite hot spots.” Staff presented the map to the City Council at a Feb. 20 informational workshop. City staff began working on the map two years ago in order to be aware of potential obstacles to crews that maintain those properties. Camps were found on the sites, but not all of the sites were occupied.
“We run into homeless camps all the time,” said Scott Schroeder, Public Works vegetation management field supervisor, in a report to the council. “It got to the point of where we became concerned over our employee safety because of what they were running into.”
Mowing, weeding and maintaining street trees are the primary duties of the vegetation crews. But when they go out to perform those jobs at city parks and trails (including the Green River Trail and Interurban Trail), they often discover homeless camps.
“I knew we had a lot of homeless but I didn’t realize it was that many,” said Mayor Dana Ralph during a phone interview. “I’ve participated the last six years in the one-night count, so I knew we had a lot but I didn’t realize it was 41. But to put it into context, it’s 41 places where we found camps, not 41 active camps.”
The map is up to date with spots where homeless camps were found, many at parks but others on wetlands and other sites.
“A lot of the areas do get reoccupied,” said Bill Thomas, Public Works street and vegetation manager, to the council. “They do move back.”
Schroeder said his crews work with Kent Police officers to remove the homeless camps. He said it can take anywhere from one to two weeks before a camp is removed. He added that the city’s human services staff also gets involved.
A resident recently called the city about a large homeless site along Frager Road, near an area known as the Downey Farmstead. The caller saw the camps from the freeway. Schroeder said he hadn’t seen the camps because crews usually access that area from Frager Road.
“I could not believe the encampment that we had there,” Schroeder said. “After trees dropped their leaves, it opened it up and there were five or six well-established, wood-structured homeless camps in the area. We worked with the Union Gospel Mission. … We offered help to up to 20 people, everyone that was there. Two said they were going to seek help and only one took the opportunity.”
Ralph and Thomas visited the Frager Road site about two weeks ago, after everyone had moved out.
“I was shocked at the amount of garbage,” she said. “We can’t haul it out right now because it’s too muddy. Our crews will do the cleanup.”
Ralph said police officers and city staff try to work with the homeless to connect them with service providers such as Seattle Union Gospel Mission and Catholic Community Services to give people alternatives to living at the campsites.
In fact, Catholic Community Services plans to build about 80 units to provide housing for the homeless behind the Lowe’s store on Kent’s West Hill, a project expected to be completed in 2019, Ralph said.
The mayor also is a member of One Table – a high-level work group organized this year by King County Executive Dow Constantine – with an aggressive timeline for developing community action steps to confront the root causes of homelessness.
“We need to figure out how to prevent it,” she said.
But the items found at homeless camps can be dangerous to city vegetation crews who go to the properties to cut grass or trees.
“It impacts our work,” Schroeder said. “We can’t do anything until the area is cleaned up. There are human feces and needles. If we try to trim those areas and run into that with a line trimmer, you are taking a needle to the leg or human feces in places you don’t want. … You don’t really know what you are walking into. They use buckets as bathrooms.”
The numerous homeless campsites remain a challenge for city officials. And it is illegal to camp on city property.
“We’re trying to balance the need to take care of everyone in the city and the need for public safety,” Ralph said. “I don’t want people to think we’re not doing anything. But I don’t want them to think we’re heartless either.”