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Homeless find a place at Village Green

A man hangs out under the shelter at the Village Green while two others play Frisbee. - Michele AnneLouise Cohen
A man hangs out under the shelter at the Village Green while two others play Frisbee.
— image credit: Michele AnneLouise Cohen

A handful of men stood under the shelter at the Village Green on a recent weeknight, shooting the breeze, missing the television set they used to share and wondering whose unopened cans of food were spread out on one of the tables.

One man, prostrate on a table and seemingly asleep, suddenly stirred when talk of the TV began.

“I want to see ‘Yellow Submarine’ again. That’s the coolest (film) I’ve seen in my life,” he drawled, lacing his description of the movie with a few expletives, prompting another man to tell him to cool it. “We’ve got a lady here!”

And so it went for some time — a lively give and take at the park as the night grew deeper and the stars emerged. Some, when asked, said they were homeless. Some weren’t.

One man, particularly well-spoken, said he had a home to go to that night but enjoyed spending his evenings at the Village Green.

“A lot of people come and go. It’s a good place to hang out,” he said.

Another man, who lived in the woods behind the Roseballen housing development until his camp was razed three months ago, sounded bitter when asked why he was there after dark.

“We can’t go anywhere else,” he said.

By urban standards, Vashon’s scene at its most centrally located park is mild. The police intervene on occasion, but for the most part, they’re a peaceable bunch, playing Frisbee and hacky sack during the day, sitting on the tables and talking at night.

The men and women who spend their days and evenings there, however, routinely leave a mess behind, and the bathroom — built three years ago for $85,000 — is often so dirty that the Vashon Park District considers it a public health hazard.

Park district staff who have to clean it sometimes complain about the mess, Executive Director Jan Milligan said. A couple of times, a bin in the bathroom that holds spent needles has been ripped off the wall and needles were scattered across the floor.

Sometimes the janitor arrives to find someone sleeping there. On a Saturday two weeks, Milligan cleaned the bathroom herself before the start of the Farmers Market, when hundreds of people visit the park.

Drug paraphernalia, human waste, beer cans and other trash routinely litter the bathroom floor as well as the area around it, she said.

Last week, at the park district’s board meeting, Milligan brought up the issue, saying she wants to try to find away to address what she sees as a growing problem and a hazard to her staff and the public.

“My concern has nothing to do with homelessness,” she said after the meeting. “My concern is that the frequent users over there are making a pretty big mess of both the grounds and the bathroom.”

Bill Ameling, who chairs the park district’s board, shares Milligan’s frustration.

“We provide the community restroom there in town for people. But no one uses it because it’s trashed and dangerous,” he said.

Indeed, both said, they’re concerned that many Islanders avoid the Village Green altogether these days because of what many perceive as a growing presence of badly behaved people in the park.

“I don’t mind that they’re there,” Milligan added. “It’s their behavior that’s a problem.”

Milligan said she plans to work with the King County Sheriff’s Office more closely, since some of the activities — drinking and drug-use, for instance — are against the law. The park district might consider locking the bathroom at times as well, Milligan said.

But pushing the problem out of the Village Green could mean it crops up elsewhere, such as Ober Park, where there’s a popular children’s playground, both Ameling and Milligan noted.

“It’s one thing to have a needle in the bushes at the Village Green. What if there were needles in the playground where the kids are?” Ameling asked.

Milligan said she plans to begin her effort by talking to those who spend time at the park and appealing “to their sense of responsibility,” something she attempted last week when she approached one of the park’s regular users about the situation at the Village Green.

“I’m going to try to make them understand that how they act is keeping others out of the park … It’s about respect. And I think they have some consciousness about it,” she said.

The Village Green — put into public ownership after a huge fundraising campaign about a dozen years ago — has long been a quiet place, save for the bustling weekly farmers market. The park district tried to draw more people into the park a few years ago, when it held its Tunes at Noon music series; the series ended in large part because of scant attendance.

Martin Koenig, who headed up the fundraising campaign to put the Village Green into public ownership, has also tried to make the park a more central part of Island life; for a few summers, he held ethnic folk-dancing sessions — replete with live music — in the park on Monday nights. But the park has never fulfilled its potential and become the hub of the community, Koenig noted.

“It’s a very friendly place and a very intimate place. … It’s really owned by the community. But that hasn’t happened,” he said, noting that it’s not well-used. “I don’t know why.”

All along, Vashon’s small homeless population as well as those who don’t have other things to do during the day have found it a pleasant place to spend time. The public bathroom, completed in 2009, added to its lure, some noted. The situation has grown more intense this spring, after the large homeless camp behind Roseballen was razed by the landowner, a Seattle woman who has since sold the property to King County.

Those who were lingering at the Village Green the other night said they understand that trash is a problem. One man, whose first name is Michael, said he, too, is unhappy about the state of the bathroom. “It disgusts me,” he said.

But on this particular night, he noted, the trash can in the park was full as well as a Dumpster in the alley behind the park, leaving park denizens no choice but to use the bathroom waste basket. Looking in the bathroom at an overflowing trash container and cans and paper towels strewn across the floor, he added, “This is the first time it’s been this bad.”

Some said they were frustrated by the public’s dismay with their presence at the park. One man, sounding upset, noted that the Farmers Market gets to use electricity for the weekly affair but those who hang out at the park at night no longer have access; power is now routinely turned off during the week.

“If I can’t be here, the Saturday market people can’t be here,” he said defiantly.

Michael, meanwhile, sounded dismayed by the talk and acknowledged that the small collection of park users has made the situation worse.

“If the guys would be more respectful of their surroundings, the community wouldn’t be so angry,” he said.

He routinely cleans up trash in the park, he said, adding he would that night, before he headed home. And indeed, by 6 a.m. the next day, before park district staff had made their morning rounds, the trash can in the bathroom was empty and the floor swept clean.

Rebecca Wittman, manager of the Farmers Market, said she recently encountered a drunk, profane person at the park on a Saturday morning, when she was setting up for that day’s activities. She ignored him, and he eventually left. But most often, those who stay in the park all night politely pack up and leave on Saturday morning when she arrives.

She said she hopes Islanders can view the nighttime park users with compassion. “These are people who could be your sons and brothers,” she said.

At the same time, Wittman added, she sees a need to proceed carefully. “It feels like a real delicate balance between us,” she said.

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