My sketching began as an unintentional act of art therapy — a response to the pandemic’s containment and alienation. As the drawings accumulated, filling my increasingly frayed sketch book, they evolved into a documentation of time, place, and pandemic. The shuttered businesses reveal narratives of failed aspirations to obtain the ever elusive American dream. The heroic striving for modest self-sufficiency is lost, the sense of failure etched into darkened neon signs, padlocked doors, and “AVAILABLE FOR RENT” signs filling darkened windows. The neighborhood Baseball Barber Shop, local dive bar Al’s, Essential Café, Big Wheel Auto Parts, and Ramona Dry Cleaners, all gone. I knew most of the proprietors and in better times laughed and kibitzed with them. I never got to say goodbye, it happened so quickly. In Seattle, over 4,500 businesses have closed or are permanently shuttered. Documenting the pandemic on a lightweight portable stool was an evolving, personal journey stemming from indeterminant wanderings. The sketch book became a journal, story, and ultimately confession. The pandemic unexpectedly raised questions catching many of us off guard. What is my role and how is what I do meaningful and impactful? As we bang pots in support of frontline workers, an uncomfortable thought looms: They’re making a difference. Am I?
While wandering the city the abundance and publicness of homelessness shocked me, it appeared to have grown so quickly and unexpectedly. Seattle has always had a homeless population, but during the pandemic it has become both more public and undeniable, often resulting in caustic responses. In 2021 Seattle had approximately 11,751 homeless, a 20% increase from 2010. (Washington State Wire, 2020) In 2021 Seattle was ranked 3rd highest in homeless population in the country. (Seattle Times 2021) The realities of homelessness are grim. 221 homeless people have died in Seattle since last winter from weather, heat and cold, COVID, drug overdoses and violence. ( Seattle Times, Nov 2021)
My interest in focusing on homelessness is twofold. , it’s a transitory situation its important to document the situation as evidence, evidence that it is real, and that we as a society have in part, turned away allowing it to happen. Of course many devoted people and groups are trying to address and solve it, but many simply turn their face and pass it by. The second reason was to hear the stories and learn about the situation form those most impacted by it. This is a delicate balance as many don’t want to share their stories for various reasons and don’t want to be depicted in this situation, thus the lack of people in the sketches. My work will continue as there is much more to learn, what is presented here is what I have done from 2020-2021.
Camp 4 is a triangular park with an edge barrier created by the RV’s and tents and assorted collected materials, storage containers, and random objects. It’s been here for quite a while and I’d driven by but only decided to draw it a few days ago as it was seasonably warm outside. It was a bit of a scene with a man howling across the street and those in the tents yelling back at him to chill out. Neither was resonating with the other and it continued for most of the sketching time. In the middle of the sketch a posse of very young drug dealers showed up, I’d estimate they were 15-16 years old and swept the encampment hassling the inhabitants to purchase their product. They certainly had no idea of what to make of me!! As an ad-hoc encampment, as many in Seattle are, it was sadly characterized by drug addiction, used syringes are strewn about and the fragility of mental health. Some creative attempts at creating small “hut” housing are ongoing, but the broken mental health system seems, along with historic inequities including COVID and the cost and loss of housing within the city create these sites of desperation that are growing larger, more common, and unfortunately becoming innocuous within the Seattle urban fabric.
As I’ve been walking the city as I expect as many of you are, I’m noticing more tent camps in places not previously used. One of these is right along the VA hospital and the other along the Burk Gilman trail. The numbers must sadly be growing quickly and they become ubiquitous, most people walk by them as if it’s ok and acceptable. I started documenting a few of them as I found them interesting in their creative use of materials and as many are new tents as a strange reference to camping without the romance of a so called scenic site. I also paid more attention through observation and conversation to better understand the stories and realities. In the gray paper drawing on BG trail the occupant diligently cleaned the site for most of my time there and two women who were cleaning the trail gave him some bags to put the garbage in. We assume this doesn’t happen because of the haphazard look, but he had a system of organization and swept and raked his camp. We’re do you put everything without closets, shelves, trunks etc. I got the impression he was doing the best he could despite theft, rain, lack of water etc.
Not an urban vacation! These scenes of parked RV’s can be found on many streets within the city. This one is on a street abutting Greenlake, one of the most intensively used parks in the city. At first glance, it looks like campers with BBQ’s enjoying the beauty of the lake and I expect and hope they do. On closer inspection, many of the “front yards” have collections of scrap metal, wood, bicycle frame, electrical devices etc. Many have large generators so the constant hum of the motors creates a noise that disrupts the calming effects of the large and large trees. Most of the inhabitants I met were quite friendly and kept their sites very clean. As I was sketching a guy came up and said:
Can I ask you something?” sure
“Where am I?” (a question I often ask myself!)
We’ll this is Seattle if that’s what you’re asking?
“Oh, Ok man I love it, it’s so beautiful, amazing?”
Just wait it’s just starting. By June it will be even better!
“Where you from New York.”
Na Jersey the better state!
“Hah, I’m from Maryland, between DC and Baltimore, you know from the country.”
I gave him directions to the closest 711 so he could get something to eat, the local grocery store is too expensive! As he walked off he yelled back to me “my sister lives in Toms River, in Jersey!!! Such a decent guy, I longed to hear more of his story, how did he get here and why? But I also didn’t want to pry where I didn’t belong. Just left with hints of an incomplete story. Hope he is doing OK.” Removed Dec 2021
This tiny camp is located in an entry to the Greenlake Community Center and illustrates the critical dependence on canopies for the homeless, note how bridges are a preferred location. The whole structure is suspended from the light fixture. The building is in the deco style and a nice example of decorative concrete in its minimal expression. The inhabitant went in and out of his home and I wondered does this unique form of home offer a sense of attachment that many academics write about as they come back after a long day of scavenging or waiting on breadlines that many feel when they, or rather used to return home from work, school, etc. Or does it elicit a sad memory of better times, a more stable existence?
“Mapping the shadows of despair”. This is a dense encampment n City Hall Park that appears to have trees growing out of the blue tarp drapery. It’s very active, with many parallel interchanges happening, while others hang out and socialize. Just as I was leaving a church group showed up with tables of food for Sunday lunch. It is located very close to both a major social service agency and transfer bus stops an interesting mingling of many with severe mental health challenges, and small smatterings of bus riders, reduced since the pandemic. It’s both surreal and in your face real! As with most of life, it’s full of contradictions.
This juxtaposition of tents and this tiny, residual piece of land with the historic houses surrounding it holds an irony all too common in our city. The land has stately trees and sits nestled into the oxbow of the street. It’s been set up for quite a while and a fellow from the house came out and went about their work without any sense of disdain or condemning, though I expect what had been their sense of a front yard has been significantly changed. The site is quite clean, unlike a much larger one a block north. Someone had remarked that I make these sketches too bucolic and that the reality isn’t. That’s a fair critique, though I can say I’m still experimenting with watercolors and sometimes the color has a mind of its own. I also find irony in how they are somewhat bucolic on a first view. If these were not serving the homeless, but instead were campsites at a state park nestled between trees, we would have a totally different reaction. Many of them are inserted into green spaces, with grand trees and dense understories and I find a maybe conflicting beauty in some aspects of their physical manifestations, the colors, the folds of the materials, the forms of the tents, the lighting, and shadows The health conditions, stigma, and despair is the other indisputable side of the story that I try not to ignore and that maybe is more apparent in some of the sketches than in others. While I have often seen amazing dignity it is also a very sad and dark chapter of the richest country in the world!
Field of Dreams! This image captured me for two reasons First, I worked on a project within this park, (university playfield) to create a “memory fence” (not in this drawing). The stone piers and gateway have memory rocks, created by an artist integrated within the river rocks. These “rocks”, made of acrylic resin have old photos and objects of attachment embedded within their forms that were gathered from the community by the artist. I wondered if the inhabitant of this shelter once played baseball as a kid on some playground, sandlot somewhere, and now ironically has pitched their abode on to what might be a familiar site. I wonder what memories does this site, a ball field illicit? Does it create a connection to differing times, conditions, and interactions with the site, or is it simply survival and the nostalgia is lost, consumed by substances, or too painful to engage? All questions unanswered, but unavoidable as this location was, I assume intentional, why? Removed Nov 2021
Closed! Sort of defines 2021-2022! I went back to this small park on Capital Hill to document any changes, and man was it changed! To be honest the Parks Dept. is frankly in a difficult position, first sanctioning the camps, then feeling a reverse in public pressure, and now removing them. I think, though others may know better than me, the closing is to reestablish the turf that was compacted and degraded, though temporary can be more on the permanent end of things when it comes to city facilities. The leaves intertwined with the fencing combined with the shadows made for a challenging task, but what’s life without a challenge. Wait, these days life itself is a major challenge. Well, I guess this challenge takes my mind of that other one, one that I can at least try to control!
Conversation Greenlake with Raphael:
Approached me and said nice drawing but these are people private lives and maybe that should be respected. I explained what I was doing and ment no disrespect and then we got talking. He came from Atlanta, had 4 Aunts here and 30-40 cousins but seemed to have been rejected by many of them. Been in Seattle for 6 years and would never go back to the south where he suffered from racism. Had two kids. Well versed in politics. Admired the drawing and that I came out and was willing to talk with him. Noted most people pass by and don’t really know the homeless and wonder why they didn’t come up and ask them about it? Ranted a bit and wondered from topic to topic. At one point talking to himself he talked about his brother dying and no one helping him, the many friends he has lost and implied some sort of trauma. He noted many problems decried capitalism said many of the homeless would prefer a barter system than capitalism. He noted many of the wealthy who looked down on them would have their day when electricity failed and other utilities vanished and they couldn’t survive, however the homeless were adept at survival and wouldn’t help those that had demeaned them in their time of need. He had been drinking but no evidence of drugs. Had voted for Trump because he was different and felt he got a lot done. He had a lot of faith in the youth and was optimistic that they could solve many of the problems including homelessness. He repaired bicycles, not sure if he was paid.
Greenlake removed Dec 2001
Emerging from the shadows. Now becoming commonplace, tucked into the recesses of the concrete slabs and accessed through holes in the chain link security fences these encampments are less than 10 feet from the 4 lanes of traffic on I-5. Forever dark, tents recede into the darkness where life continues. In this session, I observed a sharing community with bicycles being used as needed on a rotating basis. In documenting these specific camps I have also appreciated the ironic beauty of the highway structure. With soaring columns, repeated in sensuous curves they could be perceived as cathedrals of transit.
“The shooting throne has lost a leg” or “The Junkies Acropolis” Wandering about these cave lands I started seeing solitary chairs at highpoints and at the time thought nothing of it. The other day I thought I’d investigate and upon getting closer realized I was walking around a carpet of used syringes. These are shooting chairs where drugs are injected. Sort of makes sense as it’s probably easier to find a vein sitting down? There are a few of them at this site, all high atop the slopes, near a column though clearly not out of site. Instead, they are rather prominent features.
Out of the light, rain, and visibility. After doing so many encampments I am intrigued by the solo tents I see. By their siting, these inhabitants choose not to be part of a place/community but instead seek their own space/place. This particular is been under the 15th street north abutment of the Ballard bridge for a long time. It seems so well fitted into the bays of the bridge wall. Nestled yet contrasted to the “deco” like the linear design of the bridge. Unlike many other sites, this one rarely has any trash or accumulation of collected/stored items.
“The return prodigal son, or red tent”. This site, under the University Bridge, was closed due to a fire that damaged the “wall of death” a public art project installed decades ago on this site. At the time it was a large encampment and just recently this one tent has reclaimed this narrow stretch of land between the fence and the Burke Gillman trail. It’s also an intensive energized site, a convergence of the bridge/roadway above and the BG trail, one of the most popular in the city, below. The chaos in the foreground is DOT’s strategy to keep skateboarders off the slope. I got some looks doing this one, I guess the point was dude you could be in spandex bicycling instead of crunched up on the ledge sketching. True, but I don’t look good in spandex! In fact, very few do!!! Removed or relocated Nov 2021
An abandoned cart bears witness. This is a large encampment near Georgetown between I-5 and the train tracks. There are some amazing plywood 2 story houses on-site and I’m hoping to get further into the site to sketch them. I didn’t realize this, but people bring old pallets and wood to leave and it’s reused to build shelters and for fires. The boss of the tribe came up to see what I was doing and I guess h approved of the act of drawing, as he nodded and went back to his building project. Not sure if it’s me broadening my geographic area, but man the number of tents and RV’s has just exploded. It would be very interesting to know the numbers in the ’30s and how they compare with those of today. Well maybe someday the council and mayor can actually get together and as a team finds some compassionate solutions! It certainly isn’t getting any better.
Dead End!!! Pushed from the more public sites, this terminal site under I-5 had been expanding. A few months ago it was 4-5 tents, now it’s 15-20. One enters through a hole in the fence and you are in another place. As I sat to sketch, the spy boys came out. These are the looks outs that watch for intruders and threats. They observed that I apparently wasn’t a threat and life went on. Later one of the young men came out and was apparently asked to investigate what I was doing and I explained my wanderings and noted I’d leave if he was uncomfortable? He replied no it was OK though puzzled why I choose this scene to sketch. He was rather shy, very polite and earnest, well dressed, and seemingly not inebriated. I still think and visualize this young man and wonder was it domestic child abuse, sexual orientation, poverty, loss of job? Why did he have no other choices and why was there no one to care?
The House of Skewed Angles: Cathedral, campsite, public art? Below interstate 5, this encampment lies near Greenlake It was transformed through a public art project a decade ago that created identity for the park and ride below. It lends a carnival sensibility to the rather grim reality of car domination (pre COVID),desolation , and now a covered, dry campsite for this small encampment.(post COVID). The site is flanked on the east by a natural meadow and street lined with RV’s, (a growing and now common phenomenon). I was there early last Sunday morning and a few occupants wandered out of their tents, observed me, wandered a bit more, and returned to their homes (as a Sunday morning should be!). I have discovered and documented many under-overpass encampment sites, this one however is one of the more public and noticeable ones, accentuated by the colorful mosaic of symbols. Encampment destroyed by fire, removed Nov 2021.
Eking out a semblance of order in the tunnel of chaos: Similar to so many, this site has been cleared, then re-established as the tunnel provides a dry place to live in a continuing never-ending cycle. This resident came out of the tent mid-way through the sketch and started sweeping the leaves and clearing the storm inlet. Their possessions blend into the identity wall, a mosaic of markings, a colorful backdrop to a pretty bleak site. This space is one of many pedestrian gateways into the U of WA campus and the never-ending changes on the walls provide endless creative expressions, or as others might see it disfiguring of a brutal concrete form. The resident was going through what appeared to be a psychotic episode and upon realizing this I left so as not to agitate them. It’s hard to believe that thousands of people in similar conditions, both physical and mental are struggling to stay alive in a city with unimaginable wealth. America is a strange, at times wonderful, and at times unrecognizable and nor compassionate place.
Where the sun don’t shine and the rain don’t fall. More and more folk are being removed from parks and seeking shelter under the bridges along the I-5 corridor, in more visible and exposed locations. I went to draw this scene after the rains we had in November and thought a puddle at the curb was a curb cut. It wasn’t. I took a header as I flew over the handlebars stopping my fall and shredding my left hand. The drawing bears evidence with some bloodstains, (they might have been cropped out) and was blended into the color version. Never a dull day in the field. A student, from a class I had given a sketching lecture also found me on the site, and by the look in her eyes I think thought I was a bit crazy with a bloody hand and sketchbook, well I guess the old adage no pain, no gain should be part of the next lecture.
View of the Bridge. Just got back from Portland OR after spending a few days documenting the homeless situation there. It differs from Seattle in that you don’t see encampments in public parks but instead on top of or below overpasses, on sidewalks, and in cloverleaves. While drawing this scene a younger fellow came out of the tent site and asked if I was drawing. I was and said yup. He noted that he also had done some drawing and asked if we could exchange artworks. He said, ” I’ll try and find something a lot of my stuff has been stolen, it happens a lot out here.” I agreed and will post his as well. He was from Brazil and tattooed with wonderful indigenous art and had lived in NYC for 20 years and told be storied of spending time with his cousins in the Ironbound district of Newark, a Portuguese community. I asked how it was being homeless in Portland and he noted the police were great but that the local residents were not so pleased. He was quite thoughtful and understood their discomfort and noted that “they have kids and knowing what goes on around here at night, man its, you know rough and shit if I had kids I’d be uncomfortable too.” He ran back got the rose drawing and said” Just as a heads up the women whose camp is behind you is a bit, well, you know, crazy, and I don’t mean just strange, but kind of violent. Just letting you know. Hey come by any time your welcome in my place, just ask for Space. Be safe!” A few days later I dropped off the sketch I did of his place. He wasn’t there but his roommates were, I hope he got it. Just a note, Portland is The Rose City, in reference to Space’s drawing.
Gone Nov 2021
A median as home. Below the University bridge sits this tent on a median approximately 6′ wide depth. The traffic is quite literally on their doorstep. Because so many other level sites are now cordoned off these become viable options. It’s also somewhat defensible, the road acting a bit s a moat. Everywhere I walk these images emerge, most recently covered with snow. I don’t have solutions. I sometimes bring a sandwich to give, offer a few bucks, and as a witness, document with the pen.
“Be Loved! Grace spills out onto the street”. On this Portland OR corner is a wonderful church, its stairs flowing out into the street, parting the terracotta columns. Many tents set upon its apron. In the tent to the far left resides a middle-aged man who while I was sketching rode up on me in his wheelchair, his legs cut off up to his groin. He asked what I was doing, “just sketching”, hah I also draw, and off he went to his tent coming back a few minutes later with a very colorful drawing. “Where are you from?” I asked, “Tacoma but I lived in NYC for 20 years, loved it, hope to get back there soon!” On we chatted, then I finished and was off searching for the next site to sketch. It was only later that I thought, as hard as it is living on the street this guy, Frank, has to overcome so many obstacles, finding a bathroom, showering, preparing food, basically everything, yet he was exceptionally upbeat, chatty. I got the sense he was the mayor of those gathered about the church.
Turf Wars. I spent 4 days in Portland wandering and sketching and comparing the conditions there to those in Seattle. While Portland certainly rivals or surpasses Seattle in numbers of the visible homeless, interestingly I didn’t see any in the public parks, their policies ban it I assume. This image captures a tent encampment surrounding a park and in this case claiming the sidewalk and barring easy passage along its course. People had to wander into the abutting street lane to circumvent it. It’s the first case I’ve found and the police and authorities seemed pretty l ax about the conflict it was clearly causing. While sketching people were coming in and out, chilling and talking. Later a few skateboarders came back and rearranged the blue tarps to obstruct my view of it. I understood their desire and the challenges of privacy within such a public domain. I also realized so many of the blue tarps I see are actually for privacy as much as rain protection and now find examples of privacy screens everywhere. They often resemble sensual drapery in the way they hang, slump and leap and dance in the wind!
The caravan continues to grow: These refugees, now coming from other sites where they have been evicted, continue to arrive. I had been meaning to document this particular RV for the wonderful painting that represents the University of Washington colors, purple and gold. Ironically the scene slightly resembles tailgater’s waiting for the football game to begin, the reality however couldn’t be further from that condition. That said, the color brightens up this strip of burned and eroding RV shells that make up much of this caravan, most of which won’t be moving anytime soon, as they are propped up on concrete blocks and wood timbers.
This dark gateway is the primary pedestrian access into the University district in Seattle. It ebbs and flows as a tent encampment and is now more permanent since COVID. It’s been a magnet for tagging and has some wonderful paintings and statements sprayed upon its dark and grimy walls. When I was sketching last Sunday a few of the inhabitants came out and they seemed dazed from the light and whatever they had consumed on Saturday night. As the primary bus route out from the district, it’s very loud, magnified but the concrete tunnel. Frankly, it’s a sad place with a few gems of painterly expression. To see one of them refer to a post I did a few days ago “everyone has a right to be remembered”
Removed Nov 2021
Stranded. A boat lies, seemingly abandoned on a residual piece of land. RV’s, now semi-permanent homes are occupied with occupants far from “home”. This scene, without the boat, is becoming a common public street landscape. As these RV corridors become more grounded transient communities, they suggest permanence. In reality, the RV’s are often deconstructing as repairs become too costly and they lie dormant, engines cold and oil dripping.
Shade graces the urban campground. This 1 block strip of forlorn landscape has been the scene of a cat and mouse game between those without homes and the authorities. They clear them out, putting barriers into the roadway, but folks return. It’s hard to find an affordable home in Tinsel Town. I am always struck by how it changes and could be a state park, if not for the context. And of course as one digs deeper the amazing examples of resilience, despair, and pathos. When I was sketching mid-morning the drug dealers showed up on a motorcycle and a flurry of activity ensued and settled down once they left. An hour later a cop drove by taking a great visual interest in what I was doing. A woman, Bunny? came up and asked if I knew where the woman who occupied the tent to the left was. She hadn’t seen her in a while and noted that the last time she saw her she was in bad shape. All that’s left are the last belongings that haven’t been looted and a lot of needle caps. I could see it had not been a healthy situation. Imagine, being alone, female, strung out and a family either desperately searching for her, or had given up.
The evidence is all that remains! This is a view from the westside, as a complement to my last post of the same view from the eastside. This tent, once occupied by a young women, is now abandoned, and now all that remains are the discarded clothes, utensils, and other accouterments. I’m not sure where she went if she’ll come back and when the evidence will be disappeared. The abundance of needle caps indicates that either she was strung out, or her home used by others once was abandoned. While I was there a fellow came out of his RV dumped a bag of his trash near this site and walked back to his RV. Out of sight, apparently out of mind. It’s a sad story, and yet there is a random beauty in the arrangement of her belongings, sadly all that’s left is a story of her most recent life.
Department of Transportation
A tree grows in Seattle. Maybe symbolizing tenaciousness, for both the tree and those living beneath her in tough circumstances. This tree is the center of camp 9 located within a highway off/onramp that accesses the University district. Flanking both sides of the street it has become an ad-hoc gateway into the district. The existing fencing has been cut and tents follow the green buffer to the south along the interstate. I drew this early on a Sunday morning as the drug dealers showed up to ply their wares. It’s a pretty crazy situation with lots of drug-addled folks roaming in and out. The bus stop seen behind the one-way sign is now the center of this retail enterprise. The irony of tents and green spaces that for many represent a commune with nature is now being reinterpreted as these campers seek the privacy and remoteness these urban beauty strips provide, but it’s not clear the purpose of nature immersion is the primary intention. Removed Nov 2021
Hole in a fence, moat as a defense! These tears in the urban fabric are becoming more and more common as access to less visible residual spaces is desired for habitation. This camp is also on an island created by on-ramps. The roadway is similar to a mid-evil moat defensive strategy to create defensible space. Here the roadway creates the separation. While notably less scenic than a water body, it seems equally successful in its difficulty to access.
“Beneath the shadows.” This could be a campsite at Deception Pass, through the railings of the Aurora bridge suggest a more urban setting. Another notable difference is the plethora of needles just below where I was sitting as well as outside of the tent openings, presumably thrown out after the deed was done. The flowering plants were also an ironic contrast to the odd median campground now common throughout the city. For me, like during Katrina, the blue tarp will become emblematic of the pandemic, my fear is, it may not, at least in Seattle end once the pandemic subsides!
The Crossing, A Gateway to the other side: As efforts ramp up in Seattle to remove encampments from parks, streets, off-ramps, these more hidden sites are becoming increasingly inhabited. At the end of a dead-end street in the University District, an area losing much of its single-family affordable rental properties, taller towers are being erected as part of our urban village concept. Hopefully, some of the units will also be affordable. In the interim, the hole-in fence offers access into the ROW flanking I-5, an interstate highway stretching from LA to Vancouver BC. The tent was occupied by a fellow who peered, but never came out, and appeared skittish. Only later when the crack dealer came did I understand how paranoid he really was. Many people passed in and out accessing the many tents that were sited behind trees and bushes, none of which diminished the roar of semi-trucks barreling on to their next delivery.
“Follow” destination unknown. This is one of two encampments abutting a bridge crossing Interstate-5, a corridor that serves as a gateway into the University district. Both encampments also parallel the freeway and this one surrounds and uses a utility building to support the canopies. The southern encampment was removed a few months ago. Both are habituated by many IV users among others, as the many uncapped, discarded needles narrate. The site is accessed through holes cut out of a chain link fence. As the authorities try to move the inhabitants out, and recent fires have destroyed tents, many inhabitants are being pushed further back along the median, out of sight, and closer to the traveling lanes. I had hoped to get the blackened trees in the foreground but couldn’t get an angle to perch upon as the site is relatively steep, sloping to the freeway. Only one occupant emerged from the shelter while I was sketching and they didn’t want to chat. I’ve documented many other temporal sites that are various parts of this encampment, which is changing all the time, in part to avoid scrutiny and possible eviction. It’s interesting to do this work while reading a recent book Skid Road, a historical narrative of homelessness in Seattle by a U of WA Nursing Professor Josephine Ensign, and understand the changing and continuing policies and cultural attitudes towards poverty, racism, and homelessness, while observing and talking to those living it today.
Down the Path Few have Traveled. While on the way to work I’ve walked past this tent site almost every day and its endurance is admirable as it has survived sweeps, fires, and weather. It’s tucked between the trees and using the pallet fencing as a screen it seems to blend into the surroundings and well camouflaged in its setting. Many students, faculty, and joggers pass the site, few if any stop I suspect, to talk or admire the fastidiousness and cleanliness of the camp. The inhabitant is an older man who didn’t want to converse while I was sketching and was either inside or doing chores around the site. The site is near the University Bridge that had a very large encampment which is now being permanently restricted as a heavy-duty fencing system is being installed. Another attempt to ensure another dry spot won’t be used for shelter. The city is clamping down much more than 6 months ago in sweeps and removals. I suppose it’s just a coincidence that this is happening around the city and county election time?
After the Wedding, an Alternative Community Emerges: I’ve been documenting this site for about a year now and its varying permutations. This latest visit is the first time I’ve found, and am intrigued with, the reuse of a party tent. How they came upon it and got it to the site remains a mystery but they have joined several structures to create a common shelter with several individual tents distributed within the space. They have brightly colored link chains they sometimes put up to demark their space. Some of the inhabitants were clearly intoxicated, floating from tent to tent, and asking me what I was doing. One with a clear sense of humor asked me “only draw my good side!” Unfortunately, I have already set the sketch and he was moving pretty fast. At some point, I hope to do some portraits of the occupants if they are willing. Without the context, it’s an island boarded by a bridge on and off-ramps, nestled between the pints it appears to be a holiday campground. Closer inspection reveals it is not with many needles, trash heaps, and nefarious activities taking place, yet all I have met have been very generous and kind to me. The second image top right previous page is one sketched a year ago.
A day at the beach, rather the freeway. This scene with the chair poised to receive a sitter and contemplate the view of I-405. Portland OR.
Sanctioned and Unsanctioned Details
Hooverville 2021, a gateway into Seattle. One of the largest encampments in Seattle is located just as you enter downtown from the north on 99. I had seen it for a long time and wanted to sketch it and a mild day came and I had my chance. After I drew it and was leaving on my bike, I turned around, and there it was laid out before the Space Needle!!! A powerful shot that I missed, guess need another mild day soon!!! While I was sketching two young lads came up before me and started some sort of an exchange of laptops, metals, and what appeared to be items for exchange/sale. Once the exchange was done they took a sit down to smoke heroin or fentanyl. After they consumed their intoxicants, one looked up and noticed me and cracked “whatcha doing, sketching?” “Yup.” “You sketching the camp?” “Yup” “Yeah documenting the hell hole they call the city of Seattle. The fires are burning and purgatory has arrived, strange fucking times! Take care my man and be safe.” It kind of sums it up, as only poetry of the streets can. He wasn’t far from the truth depending on your vantage point in Tinsel Town!!!
This is a formalized tent encampment on the campus of the University of Washington. Each tent is on a raised platform, most covered with tarps and it functions as a communal camp with laundry service and support facilities on site. It’s temporary and is relocated from one host site to another host site. I was sketching on an early Sunday morning and the pace was slow, with inhabitants waking, washing, and cleaning their sites. Most were young to middle-aged. While a few appeared familiar, most were not communicating but going about their solitary business. The repeated forms of different sizes and orientations create an interesting composition and a unique landscape of draped fabrics.
I returned to document this view of a large encampment downtown that I had sketched a few weeks ago. While sketching two fellows suddenly appeared rousing me from the task at hand. “What ya doing? Drawing my house, that’s my house right there.” Yup just documenting the scene is it OK? “Sure, that’s my place right there.” The other fellow, comes close and starring into my eyes says, “you like emeralds?” sure, “you like silver?” at this point, his partner pulls out a 1880 silver dollar still in a plastic sleeve with the price on it and asks if I’d like to buy it, I decline. They roam about, come back, and growl “Hey you hungry, want something to eat?” This generosity is something few understand or experience having spent little time within these encampments. I’m always amazed that those with so little can be so generous and that the common stereotypes erase these, and significant small acts of kindness. Finally, Jack, from Ellensburg WA asks me to pick a number, any number from 1-999, I pick 899. He looks and grins at me through very dark glasses and says “I’m zero.” Zero beneath the shadows of the Space Needle.
Dry docked, the fantasy never dies. While jogging I noticed this strange scene. This is a strip where many RV’s are parked and used as housing for those who have run out of options or in some cases have chosen the life of the road. This one, parked for a long time feels more of the permanent type. It has this boat hitched up as if soon departing for a vacation. The boat is filled, as is the front of the RV with a collection of things. I found it poignant in a somewhat sad way. Was the boat the dream they couldn’t leave behind? Is it the hope that better times will return? Is it a sign that yeah, I was once king/queen of the neighborhood? You tell me. Removed Dec 2021
Front yard kitchen: The covered front yard kitchen, also a collection of found and survival equipment is a common landscape feature in this collection of RV’s. The dull roar of generators is continuous and becomes white noise over time. The disorder/order is perpetually changing as found objects move in, coverings get destroyed or sites become abandoned. I am amazed at the ingenuity of these arrangements and how neat and cleanly some, though certainly not all are maintained! This is the front yard of the RV with the boat I posted yesterday. Removed Dec 20201