EVERETT — Somewhere among the dirty wet foam mattresses, the crumpled bottles of cheap soda, and the thousands upon thousands of discarded heroin needles, Robert Smiley figures there’s some trash he left behind too.
Off and on for years, Smiley stayed in this camp boozing and smoking crack-cocaine in a patch of woods behind Home Depot, east of Avondale Road. He’s been sober for five years. The one thing that keeps him off drugs, he says, is helping others to claw their way to sobriety. Now, as the head of the nonprofit Hand Up Project, he’s trying everything he can to get others off the streets, into detox and into sober housing.
On Friday morning in a misty drizzle, he returned to the camp with tree trimmers, claw grabbers and about 30 volunteers, to remove mounds of trash that line a network of trails. An overturned orange shopping cart sat by coat hangers, wadded tissues and greasy bags of fast food. Empty milk jugs, Big Gulps and cheap beer cans were scattered in the dead leaves. Signs that warned of the coming cleanup had been torn down and used as toilet paper. Everywhere, needles and orange sharps caps carpeted the ground. Some places they were so thick, it was like playing hopscotch to keep them from sticking into your sole.
Many of the volunteers have lived here.
“It’s not cut-and-dried when you’re dealing with a recovering addict,” said Smiley, 53, taking drags from a cigarette. “They don’t make sense. You’ve got to be willing to not make sense with them, and walk with them.”
Casey Flagg, 32, barely made it out of these woods alive. She is a small woman. She lived around men who would do anything to get high. She recalled people who were kidnapped and dumped in garbage bins. Once she almost got shot in the head in the camp, she said.
“I put myself at risk a lot, because I felt like I had to do what I had to do, to numb my pain,” Flagg said. “I was in so much pain, I didn’t care.”
Often she felt looked down on, except on the rare days when a stranger would pull over, serve chili out of the back of a truck and chat. Flagg decided, when she got clean, she wanted to be like that, to remind the people here that they are human beings. She said she stopped using heroin a year ago, in October.
“Coming back here, sober, it was very surreal,” Flagg said. “I felt like a new person, coming back to visit my old self. Because I would meet these people, and sit right across from them, while they have a needle in their arm, and I could relate. I see myself in them. I don’t see someone just wasting their life away. I see so much potential.”
She started a charity, Light of Love, through The Landing Church in Kenmore. This week she and Smiley hoped to bring together volunteers from different programs, to trade contact info, and to see how they can help each other. They want to heal a rough stretch of Highway 99 that has been afflicted by opiates, meth and the crimes that come with drug abuse.
The landlord, Julie Londo, has owned the patch of woods and a nearby duplex for 30 years, since before the big-box stores moved in. She lives out of state in winter. She’d heard of folks staying by the creek, but she did not realize it had turned into one of the larger homeless camps in Snohomish County. As she prepared to sell, and to retire, a wetland surveyor called. He wouldn’t go back there. It was too dangerous.
So the Hand Up Project stepped in to clean up the property, as they have done with other camps in south Everett and its surroundings. First they remove the garbage and debris.
“Bio people! Bio people!” shouted Kevin Hall, 59. A man ran to him. Hall handed over a needle he found while he and Kelli Larson, 30, picked through broken glass and wadded plastic bags in a brushy old fire pit. Larson’s path to living in these woods started with alcohol. At age 13, she was crushed when her grandpa died. Someone introduced her to whiskey. Her substance abuse spiraled out of control. She lived on the streets as a teen, and started to do heroin and meth. Staying here a year ago she felt, in a strange way, secure and comfortable. It was the lifestyle she knew. Looking back she doesn’t understand what she was thinking.
“People were stealing my stuff, and I was waking up sick all the time,” she said. “Hopeless. I was very hopeless. It’s taken me about that year to, you know, go through a couple of times getting clean. Finally, I don’t know what stuck, but I’m not going to question it. For the first time, I feel like I’m actually doing something.”
She’s been sober for 24 days.
“The people that struggle together will stay together,” she says, over the buzzing of a chain saw. “It’s really hard, to come back up. Like, it’s so easy to go back down. I could use the money in my wallet right now and go score. But why? What’s that going to do?”
On a smoke break Christopher Weber, 34, opened an app on his phone. A big white number, 139, flashed on the screen. That’s how many days since Father’s Day, the last time he used drugs.
Tears welled up in Weber’s eyes as he listed off the people addiction has taken from him. He lost his uncle to a heroin overdose. He lost his dad to the lasting effects of intravenous drug use. The pain of watching his dad die was too much to bear. Weber started to use again, too. He stole dozens of cars, he said. He broke into houses. He lost custody of his kids.
Weber is trying to repair what he can. He pulled up a text message. One of his daughters, 17, sent her senior picture and asked — now that he’s clean — if he would come to her graduation. That never would have happened if Smiley hadn’t driven by the camp, pulled over and offered to get Weber help.
“I’d still be out here,” he said. “I’d be dead.”
Over the next three days crews plan to work at the site. They expect to saw branches off all the evergreen trees, 10 feet high. The idea is to let in some light.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.
Want to help?
To volunteer, contact Dee Jackson at 425-345-4424, or Robert Smiley at 425-971-1774. Or go to thehandupproject.org. The first leg of the project lasts through Monday afternoon.