Homeless forced to vacate woods

Dave, a homeless man, tries to get his camper started, while Josh Hatfield, hired to help remove the abandoned vehicles, helps.  - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Dave, a homeless man, tries to get his camper started, while Josh Hatfield, hired to help remove the abandoned vehicles, helps.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

Twenty to 25 homeless people living in the woods south of the Roseballen housing development were forcibly removed over the past few weeks after King County officials received an anonymous complaint about the growing encampment.

The last couple to leave the woods, a man and woman who had made their home in their inoperable Dodge camper for two years, were forced out on Thursday as part of the far-reaching effort.

Roberta Montana, a Seattle resident who owns the parcel, said she had no choice but to evict the squatters. Because of the complaint, Montana faced a county code violation — the accumulation of junk and debris and a campground on land not zoned for such use, according to Mary Impson, a code enforcement officer with the county’s Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES). The violation was lifted Monday, after Impson visited the parcel last week and saw that the junked cars and camps had been removed.

The removal comes at the same time that the county is in negotiations with Montana to purchase her 40-acre parcel, a swath of forest and wetlands adjacent to the popular Island Center Forest and two blocks west of the Vashon post office.

While the code violation is separate from the county’s two-year effort to buy the parcel, county officials cannot complete the transaction until the violation has been lifted, said David Kimmett, a natural lands program manager for the county’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

The purchase, which could close by the end of this month, represents an auspicious development for

the county and those who enjoy Island Center Forest, a county-owned, 360-acre site that boasts a warren of trails popular among equestrians, hikers and cyclists.

“It would be a remarkable addition to Island Center Forest,” Kimmett said.

The county hopes to work with the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust to put a trailhead at the site, linking it to the nine miles of trails that already wend through the forested landscape. Once purchased, the new parcel, said Tom Dean, director of the land trust, would become “the gateway to Island Center Forest.”

“Island Center Forest is kind of becoming our Central Park,” Dean said. “This (purchase) would really bring the park right into town. … There’s something special here about making it so accessible.”

The county has an agreement in principle with Montana, as well as $750,000 set aside by the county council and earmarked for the ambitious acquisition. “It took us two rounds of application to put the money together,” Dean said.

But the end to the encampment has also put the spotlight on Vashon’s homeless population, a small group of people with few options, those who lived in the woods said. Greg Garcia, 48, who has lived in a tent on Montana’s property for six years, said he’s not sure where he’s going to go. He was booted out two weeks ago, the day before Thanksgiving.

According to Sgt. John Hall with the King County Sheriff’s Office, all of the homeless people living on the site learned in October that they’d have to leave after a deputy sheriff walked through the woods and visited every campsite. Garcia, however, said he’d only heard rumors about his impending eviction, and it wasn’t until someone shook on his tent two weeks ago that he realized he had to leave.

“I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said last week. “I’m more on the streets now,” he added. “I just sit around town and listen to people’s problems.”

Homeless people have lived in the woods behind what is now Roseballen for several years, but the size of the camp grew significantly this summer, when several people addicted to methamphetamine began to hole up there, according to both Garcia and Dave, the man who lived in his Dodge camper. Both men said the situation grew increasingly worse over the last couple of months. One man was dealing heroin, Garcia said.

“Before the meth heads arrived, it was quiet, out of the way,” said Dave. “One person moved in who was on drugs, and we got overrun with drug activity.”

It’s not clear where the men and women will go now that they’ve been evicted. One of them, a disabled veteran who had lived on Montana’s property for years, landed an apartment at Eernisse, Vashon HouseHold’s subsidized apartment complex, according to Emma Amiad, a volunteer with the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness.

Others will try to find another spot in the woods, some said. Dave, the last to leave when his camper got hauled out last week, expressed dismay over his future. “I’m a little upset,” he said. Asked where he’ll go, he said, “Down the road, I guess.”

Montana, a musician who plays flute with the Seattle Festival Orchestra, said she feels bad that so many people are down on their luck and have no place to live. At the same time, she said, they’ve made a mess of her property and cost her thousands of dollars in cleanup expenses.

All told, eight or nine junked vehicles were removed and 20 to 25 camps — some of them quite established — were bulldozed, according to Jake Johnson, a heavy-equipment operator hired by Montana to clean up the site. The area was quite foul, he added. Debris, human waste, food remains and drug paraphernalia were scattered throughout the heavily wooded site.

“I was shocked to see the garbage, the rack and ruin,” Montana said. “It’s sad for anyone to be homeless. … But I feel they’ve really, really hurt the land. … They trashed it. They never cleaned up after themselves. And I’m having to pay thousands to clean it up.”

Amiad, whose organization gave some of those who lived at the site propane heaters last winter to make sure they didn’t freeze, called this group a hard one to serve, in part because they’ve chosen to live off the grid and in the woods.

“There’s just a hard core group who wants to be separated from society,” she said.

Vashon has no shelters for homeless people, while those in Seattle are considered dangerous places that Vashon’s homeless would likely rather avoid, Amiad said.

“They don’t want to go there,” she said. “They’d rather sleep in the cold in a tent than be in a shelter where they fear they’ll be harmed.”

She said she suspects “they’ll shuffle around until they find someplace else. It’s a small population.”

Meanwhile, Montana said she’s pleased that her property will likely soon become part of Island Center Forest, saying she sees the county’s acquisition as a way to “honor that land.”

“I think that preserving it as parkland and open space is the most honorable thing to do,” she said.

Dean, with the land trust, said the parcel is ecologically significant. The property needs a lot of restoration work, not only because of the homeless encampment but because parts of it have been taken over by invasive plants such as Scotch broom.

At the same time, he said, the property boasts native forests, wetlands and the headwaters to Judd Creek, Vashon’s largest watershed. Its adjacency to Island Center Forest gives it additional significance.

“In our work, size matters,” he said. “And when we have a big area like Island Center Forest that we can make that much bigger, it’s additive; it’s worth more than the sum of its parts.”


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