EVERETT — A homeless encampment that was at the heart of downtown when this week began has migrated less than half a mile southwest to a vacant lot on Rucker Avenue, drawing the ire of neighbors who say it’s creating unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
The camp moved to 3217 Rucker Ave. after Snohomish County leaders decided last week to disperse the unsheltered folks from their previous spot on a patch of county-owned concrete at the northeast corner of Oakes Avenue and Wall Street.
Robert Smiley, a local advocate for people experiencing homelessness, is leasing the lot from property owner Alan Jackson for $1,000 for the month. Smiley and others are working to connect those camping on the property with housing and services, such as substance abuse treatment.
Campers will only be allowed on the lot until August 2, he said.
“We’re going to try and get them out of here as soon as possible,” said Smiley, who runs the non-profit The Hand Up Project.
But the camp is not “legal, authorized or safe,” according to Everett police.
Under city code, homeless encampments may be temporarily permitted with the city’s approval; however, no permits have been sought to establish such a camp at 3217 Rucker Avenue, said officer Aaron Snell, a police spokesman.
“Everett Police and other City staff are addressing the situation and working on a longer-term plan to help get more people off the street and into services so occupants, residents and businesses stay safe,” Snell said in an email.
Business owners near the Rucker Avenue spot say the encampment is scaring off customers, further costing their establishments at a time when the pandemic is already driving drastic revenue losses.
“No one wants to come down here because they’re next door,” said Dr. Leland Patron, whose chiropractic practice has offices neighboring the encampment. “They’re constantly trespassing on our property. Their trash is on our property. Their needles are on our property.”
Patron and other local business owners have retained Lynnwood attorney B. Jacob Bozeman, who recently sued Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan for allowing protesters rallying for racial justice to take over roughly six city blocks. The area, which has made national headlines, became known as the CHAZ or CHOP, acronyms for the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” and “Capitol Hill Organized Protest.”
Bozeman said his firm will be reaching out to Smiley and the landowner, as well as local city code enforcement officials and possibly state authorities.
“The property owner himself needs to be aware that his actions in voluntarily allowing this to take place on his property can be a noise and human health nuisance which needs to be abated and can be civilly abated if need be in a civil lawsuit against him and his property, in addition to the local statutory ordinances,” Bozeman said.
Jackson, the property owner, is a longtime friend of Smiley’s who owns several other properties in Snohomish County. He said that he supports the mission of The Hand Up Project, which helps people who have addictions.
“I believe in helping people recover from drug addiction and substance abuse. Nobody else helps them,” Jackson said. “He (Robert) helps people. He gets them into treatment.”
The dozens of homeless people were forced off the county property on Sunday amid safety concerns after a robbery and assault were reported nearby the encampment’s former site last month.
The decision to break up the camp went against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which advise that authorities allow homeless encampments to remain where they are unless there is an alternative location for people to go.
Several of the people camping on county property told The Daily Herald they did not know where they were going to go when the encampment was dispersed.
Shelter space has dwindled amid the pandemic due to social distancing restrictions, and other organizations that typically serve people who are homeless have rolled back operations.
“Our homeless problem is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. But not here, not like this,” Patron said.
Everett police have received more than a dozen calls about the encampment, Snell said. One man there was cited for criminal mischief, he said.
“Consistent with the mission of our Community Outreach and Enforcement Team, we will continue offering services to those currently in the encampment, many of whom were previously offered services while at the county campus,” Snell said. “At the same time, enforcement action will be taken against those unwilling to accept services and who instead choose to engage in criminal conduct.”
Smiley has refuted assertions by city and county officials that many of the people at the encampment don’t want help. People who are experiencing homelessness often distrust the law enforcement officers who offer them services, he said.
“We are recovering addicts and alcoholics ourselves. We know these people,” Smiley said. “Our whole focus is to hold their hand — walk them through all these processes.”
Individuals at the encampment have to agree to a set of rules, including spacing their tents to meet social distancing guidelines, Smiley said.
The plan for the new encampment came together over a series of Zoom meetings in a matter of hours, said Penelope Protheroe. Her organization, Angel Resource Connection, provided tents and tarps after the move.
Though the camp’s arrival has dismayed some, she called it “a mini miracle.”
“People are happy. They feel like this is a major supportive event in their life,” she said of those staying in the encampment. “The feeling — the word, I would say — is relief.”