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News / Clark County News

‘The Swamps’: Residents of homeless camp in North Image face uncertain future

WSDOT has put the property near Highway 500 up for sale

By Kelsey Turner, Columbian staff reporter
Published: January 17, 2023, 6:05am
3 Photos
Tom Miller owns property next to a homeless encampment in Vancouver's North Image neighborhood called "The Swamps" by its residents. The Washington State Department of Transportation is trying to sell the land where The Swamps sits, meaning the camp will eventually be cleared and its residents will have to find a new home.
Tom Miller owns property next to a homeless encampment in Vancouver's North Image neighborhood called "The Swamps" by its residents. The Washington State Department of Transportation is trying to sell the land where The Swamps sits, meaning the camp will eventually be cleared and its residents will have to find a new home. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Glenn DeHart opened his friend’s dresser drawer one January morning to find a litter of 10 baby rats sitting inside. The mother had run off, so he took them from the drawer and placed them inside an empty plastic toolbox, where they lay huddled together in a tiny ball.

Without food or fresh air, DeHart knows the rats will probably die in the toolbox, but he doesn’t have the heart to kill them. “They’re innocent. I can’t do nothing with them,” he said.

Rats are a common sight at the homeless encampment where DeHart lives, at the intersection of N.E. 107th Avenue and N.E. 53rd Street in Vancouver’s North Image neighborhood. On an average day, cars zooming through the encampment might pass by stray shopping carts, people hanging out by the roadside and trash bags filled with empty cans to be sold for cash.

But the view from the street only scratches the surface of the encampment’s scope. It stretches back into the woods on both sides of the street, an area filled with tents, tarps, old furniture and trash. Boards laid over the marshy ground make a pathway for people to walk without submerging their shoes in mud.

The encampment, called “The Swamps” by its residents, might look like chaos from the outside. But for about 35 people, it’s home.

“A lot of us here consider each other family. We rely on one another,” said Eric, a resident at The Swamps who asked to go by his first name for privacy reasons. Like any family, some residents bicker and fight. “We have those annoying little brothers,” Eric said, but they always have each other’s backs in times of need.

Some residents are on long waitlists for housing, while others like Eric are just trying to get back on their feet. “A lot of people come out here with goals, ‘I want to get out of here and do something good,’ ” Eric said.

Then when they settle in, survival becomes a full-time job.

“It’s like when you’re stuck in the mud. Like quicksand. That’s what this is,” DeHart said. “You feel like you’ve just fallen out of it, like you just made it to solid ground, and something drags you right back in.”

Selling The Swamps

The Swamps is home base for dozens of Vancouver’s homeless, but the encampment won’t exist forever. The Washington State Department of Transportation, which owns the land where The Swamps sits, is trying to sell the property.

Last week, a potential buyer pulled out of purchasing the land because the wetlands terrain didn’t meet the buyer’s development needs, according to WSDOT. The department will likely put the parcels back out for auction, and is unsure how long the sales process will take.

When the land is eventually sold, WSDOT will issue a notice giving camp residents at least three days to leave. Because the encampment is so large, the department will likely give more than 72 hours for people to vacate, according to Tamara Greenwell, the department’s Southwest region communications manager.

Leftover belongings will be stored for at least 30 days, Greenwell said. “Then crews will go in with support from law enforcement and social services, do a cleanup, and then restore and clean up the property.”

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WSDOT said it isn’t structured to support people living unsheltered; it tolerates encampments like The Swamps because it recognizes that there aren’t sufficient alternatives. “We have hundreds of camps on WSDOT right of way throughout the state,” Greenwell said. “If we went in and vacated all of the camps across the state, those folks have to go somewhere.”

To manage The Swamps, the department collaborates closely with the city of Vancouver, which owns the road running through it and provides its residents with law enforcement and outreach services. Vancouver Homelessness Response Coordinator Jamie Spinelli said WSDOT has done a good job coordinating with the city’s outreach team over the last year.

“Ideally, we would have enough shelter and housing capacity for everyone, so that when WSDOT or any other entity is going to come in and clear a space, we have alternatives to offer,” Spinelli said. “Unfortunately, that is not the case, nor is that something that WSDOT has control over.”

Spinelli and other outreach workers have told encampment residents that they will soon have to move out. DeHart doesn’t take the warning very seriously.

“They’ve been doing that for years. It’s always like a minor threat,” he said. He’s even packed his stuff up a few times in preparation to leave. “I get everything all put away, and I’m like, ‘Well, they ain’t doing nothing.’ So I put all my stuff back.”

Eric said he has “mixed feelings” about the cleanup. “These people out here are human beings also. And just to shove them off the way they’re probably going to do — the outlook could be different if they were just to find an avenue for some of these people. That’d be nice.”

Safety and health concerns

Tim Miller with M&O Properties has owned the property next to the encampment, now occupied by his tenant, U.S. Foods, since 1996. People have camped in the area for more than a decade. In the past three years, however, Miller has watched it grow into a community.

Though Miller said he doesn’t mind people camping across the street, he wants to see the area next door to his property cleaned up.

“This is about as ugly as it can get,” he said. He worries about fire hazards and other safety concerns. Residents burn wood in the winter, which can be dangerous around flammable tents and tarps. If wood isn’t available, people will burn plastic and trash to keep warm, creating further health and environmental risks.

Sometimes mold grows on things that people leave behind, like clothing and furniture. A dumpster, placed at the encampment by the city, is supposed to help residents manage garbage, but it’s often used by housed people who drive by to throw out trash bags.

Human waste is an issue, too, according to Sheila Andrews, Vancouver’s encampment response coordinator. The city put two porta-potties at the encampment in summer 2021, when there were fewer than 10 campers. Now, those two facilities are shared by more than 30 people. Encampment residents say the porta-potties are not cleaned often enough, and when they are cleaned, the job isn’t thorough. As a result, not everyone uses them.

Andrews noted that it’s not the job of sanitation employees to clean the mess left inside. “The porta-potties are not always kept well. People dump their needles in there, they put stuff down in the porta-potty itself or in the urinal,” Andrews said. “If there’s all this stuff in there, then it cannot be cleaned.”

Crime is also a concern, most often arising when outsiders — typically other people experiencing homelessness — visit the encampment, according to Andrews.

Spinelli noted that people living outside tend to view crime differently from other community members. “Typically, we hear about like, ‘street justice’ amongst camps,” Spinelli said. “It’s not something that they necessarily consider crime. They do sometimes handle beefs amongst themselves versus calling the cops.”

Despite the criminal activity, Heather Hagan Fisher, who’s been living at The Swamps for about seven months, said she feels safe. “We stick together,” she said. “Even if we’re arguing with each other, we have a disagreement, we still watch each other’s tents.”

A two-way street

Once people find a home at The Swamps, it can be hard to transition out. DeHart and Eric have found themselves choosing to stay there, even when they could be living elsewhere. Fisher had a spot at The Outpost, Vancouver’s nearby Safe Stay Community, in December. Yet she kept going back to The Swamps, not wanting to leave her “family” behind, she said.

“There are some people that this is home, and then when they leave, they get homesick,” DeHart said. “You get homesick, when you’re somewhere else and you’re out of your element.”

This community dynamic can be hard for non-residents to understand. DeHart said he feels judged by people driving by who sometimes take pictures or shout at encampment residents. It frustrates him when outsiders come by asking for drugs, assuming that everyone living at the camp has them.

While addiction is an issue at The Swamps, many residents also struggle with mental health issues, Eric pointed out. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that this is just a drug haven,” Eric said. “Some people genuinely have legit reasons why they’re out here, and mental health is one of the biggest things out here.”

Eric hopes housed and unhoused people can both take steps to bridge the gaps between them. “People who live out there and have a lot, they can do a little bit more to educate themselves on the homeless people,” he said. “And us as homeless people can do a little bit better and try a little bit harder to do things the right way. It’s a two-way street.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff reporter