Local law officials and community leaders are expressing concern about a new camp that has sprung up in a vacant lot just south of Vashon town, where a handful of people are living in squalid conditions and in makeshift shelters.
Police have responded to the scene several times because of reports of illicit activities, said King County Sheriff’s Dep. Joel Anderson, who works the evening shift on Vashon. He believes six to seven people are living there.
“It popped up as a place for the drug-using population maybe two or three months ago,” Anderson said. “It’s a bad scene.”
Neighbors have also expressed concern, including members of the Vashon Methodist Church; the church’s playground is nearly directly across the road from the camp.
“We’ve suspected drug use and drug dealing, and we’ve called the police when we’ve seen something suspicious,” said Rev. Kathryn Morse.
“If the church is open, we’re happy for anyone to use our restrooms and for the church to be of service in the community,” she added. “But we also have a safe-sanctuary policy, which means people should feel safe here.”
Advocates for the homeless, meanwhile, are quick to note that part of the problem is a lack of adequate housing for extremely low-income people. Indeed, Nancy Vanderpool, a volunteer with the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness, said she has worked with her own organization and others to try to find housing for some of the people living at the camp.
“I think efforts are being made. It’s just not a quick or easy fix,” she said.
The situation is difficult on Vashon, she added, where issues of homelessness and mounting concern about drug activity often get mixed together.
“Get out of the forest. Get out of the bogs. Get out of the park. Get out of the Village Green,” she said, noting that’s been the community message over the last several months. “People keep pushing, pushing, pushing these people. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all get together and find them a place to stay?”
The property is owned by John Sherman, who purchased the nearly one-acre lot on S.W. 180th Street 25 years ago. A camp cropped up a year ago, he said; his son Roger Sherman was able to force the squatters off the property and clean it up, he said.
The camp got started again this fall after Sherman agreed to let an acquaintance who had lost his home store some of his belongings there, including a boat and some lumber.
“It turned into a mess,” Sherman said.
Now, the small lot is something of a junk yard. Vehicles, including two moldering trailers with broken-out windows, sit on the property. A tent with a mattress inside it is located behind a berm. A container from a truck, with boards and a sheet acting as a makeshift door, is home to at least two people.
Junk and debris are strewn about — old chairs, plastic buckets, plywood, appliances, ice chests, a jogging baby stroller.
One man who identified himself as Mike said that not all of the debris on the lot is junk. “Those boat motors still run,” he said, nodding toward an outboard motor.
But he added that the site has gotten out of control. “It’s starting to be a problem,” he said.
Neighbors, meanwhile, are particularly concerned by the lack of sanitation at the site and the eyesore it has become. They also worry that it’s a magnet for criminal activity.
The southern edge of Eernisse Apartments, an affordable housing complex owned and managed by Vashon HouseHold, abuts 180th Street not far from the camp. Barbara Brown, the manager at Eernisse, said she’s called John Sherman to express her concerns about the site.
“There’s no water to the property. I don’t know how these people are subsisting,” she said.
Teressa Montez, who rents a house on the eastern edge of the camp, said she, too, is troubled. At night, she said, she sometimes hears arguments and bad language coming from the camp. During the day, she said, she has seen teenagers on bikes riding into it, making her fear that it could be a place for drug dealing. There’s also a lot of traffic at night, she added, and often she doesn’t feel safe.
“It’s just too close to home,” she said.
Sherman, the owner, said he, too, is frustrated by the situation and is attempting to address it. In fact, he said, the man whom he initially let store some of his belongings there promised that the truck container would be hauled off over this past weekend. On Monday, it was still there.
“Those characters don’t tell you the whole truth,” Sherman said, sounding exasperated.
Next spring, he added, he plans to clear the property of the blackberries and other shrubs and trees, hoping that will keep people off the site. “They like a place to hide,” he said.
Vanderpool, meanwhile, urged Islanders to respond compassionately. To her, the site — “an eyesore,” she acknowledged — underscores the need for more treatment facilities, mental health support and very low-cost housing, such as a boarding house with rooms to rent.
“The need is evident,” she said. “The solutions are just not popping up immediately.”