Urbal Volunteering at Encampments in Myers Way and North Lake

Written by Josh Janet, Project Manager | PE:

The city of Seattle has struggled to address its homelessness crisis, though this is a challenge facing many growing cities throughout the United States. One of the approaches that they have taken is to authorize temporary encampments throughout the city on public land. Assisting with the management of some of these sites is the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI). These encampments have restrictions placed on them regarding the size, number of residents, and protocols for security and safety. The people that are living there have fallen on hard times but otherwise just need stable housing to catch their collective breaths and find work or other support to move onto more traditional housing.

Last December, Vicky Biyo and myself volunteered with LIHI to help build Shelterlogic tents on the encampment Camp Second Chance along Myers Way South. The site is located on a gravel lot on surplus property owned by the city that has been dedicated as open space. Volunteers were split into three groups- one that built the tent structures (and later attached the canvas covers); one that built platforms to keep the tents off the ground; and one for installing thermal insulation to the canvas liners (prior to installation). These tents are not the typical preference for providing shelter, but they cost approximately $300 each for materials only and can suffice for relatively short periods of time.

As part of the City’s ordinance, the encampments must relocate every three years. The logic is that they do not want any single neighborhood feeling “burdened” but having an encampment while other neighborhoods do not have one. As a result, Ballard’s encampment moved to North Lake in January. The process takes time, however, and LIHI has been seeking out volunteers for support in setting up the new encampment.

This past Saturday, Brad Ecklund and myself volunteered with LIHI once again. Brad helped build porches and stairs for the “Tiny Houses”, which will be delivered to the site, while I painted the finishes porches in the afternoon. Tiny Houses are 12’ x 8’ framed and waterproofed shelters that are designed to be able to be large enough for living but small enough that they may be transported on flatbed trucks to different sites as needed. These have windows, thermal insulation, flooring, and electricity supply. Bathrooms and communal cooking areas are provided on site.

LIHI is always looking for volunteers for work at their various sites, as well as donations for supplies to help sustain each community. If you are interested in volunteering with LIHI in the future, please check out their web site or e-mail Brad Gerber (bradgerber@lihi.org).

Group photo North Lake 

Group photo North Lake 

Tent structure with canvas cover 

Tent structure with canvas cover 

Tiny house 

Tiny house 

Urban Design: Tent Cities

Work in progress of a tent encampment at south Seattle.   |   Photo by Josh Janet

Work in progress of a tent encampment at south Seattle.   |   Photo by Josh Janet

Every year, King County organizes a “One Night Count” of both the unsheltered homeless population throughout the county and those individuals staying in shelters or transitional housing. As of the January 2016 count, nearly 3,000 people were living on the streets in Seattle—a worsening crisis that the city has been trying to address for decades. Following the city’s authorization of homeless encampments in 2015, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared a state of emergency to tackle its rising homelessness. This week, our Project Manager Josh discussed the use of encampments in Seattle, and shared his experience of volunteering with the set-up of encampments around the city.

Written by Josh Janet, Project Manager | PE:

Homelessness is a topic that can evoke wildly varying but passionate responses, especially when discussing how to address it. In 2015, the city of Seattle hired a consultant to provide her suggestions on how the city should respond to the growing crisis, and the report that was produced called for re-allocation of funding from transitional housing to rapid re-housing. The consultant had very choice words for homeless encampments in particular: “Encampments are a real distraction from investing in solutions. You can see it takes a lot of energy to get them running and they don’t solve the problem. You still have people who are visibly homeless, living outdoors.”

Although rapid re-housing may work for some, many local homeless housing advocates challenged that it has not shown to work for more vulnerable members of the community. Neither the report nor the consultant’s comments address that fact that if housing isn’t available today, individuals and families that are homeless don’t really have any other options.

Seattle is one of the few cities in the country that has attempted to regulate the use of encampments around the city. The Seattle Municipal Code allows encampments to be accessory uses on property owned by religious organizations and interim uses (up to three months) on other property that meet certain restrictions (such as a 25-foot buffer from residential properties). The maximum allowed number of residents is set at 100 and the site must meet a number of safety standards, including the placement of fire extinguishers and 100-person first-aid kits, designated smoking areas, power protection devices and associated safety posts. Encampments are also required to provide and maintain chemical toilets, running water (either indoors or properly discharged outdoors), and garbage removal services. Cooking facilities aren’t required but need to meet health standards.

I first volunteered with the set-up of an encampment when the Tent City Collective was provided space in a parking lot on the University of Washington’s campus, back in December (right down the street from the College of Built Environment in Gould Hall). With the three months up, the collective had to move this past weekend to another site, located in south Seattle near Renton. Less visible than the UW location, this new spot pits residents much further from services and employment and was basically a large mud pit when they were in the process of constructing the new encampment.

If you’ve never been to an encampment, wooden pallets are arranged in a 3x4 pattern for families and in a 2x2 pattern for individuals. Plywood sheathing is nailed onto the pallets, and these provide a basis for tents to be installed such that they do not need to be set on the ground (staying dryer and warmer). Each unit of pallets must be set 4’-0” apart to provide city-regulated clearance aisles for emergencies. In-between, organizers set them at 1’-0” apart to provide some space for access but also squeeze in as many tents as they can onto the site. In a separate area is the “kitchen,” a covered area where milk crates full of donated or collected foodstuffs are stored for resident use. Other supplies are stored here as well.

One of the biggest challenges for the homeless population in Seattle is security. It comes up often when the Mayor discusses the perceived need to clear out places like “the Jungle,” the area underneath I-5 between roughly South Dearborn Street and Lucille Street. In a talk at the Central Library last June, however, former and current residents of the Jungle spoke to the critical need for stability and community that the Jungle provided. If a homeless individual is on their own, it is likely that whenever they leave their tent behind with possessions in it, it is going to get ransacked. Imagine leaving your home every day and finding all of your possessions gone that evening, forced to start from scratch again the next morning. Encampments and other “village” style communities allow for individuals and families to leave for the day, whether for work, food, support services, school, or just needing a break, and return to a relatively stable environment.

As long as rapid re-housing is promoted as the primary method for addressing homelessness, there is going to be a lag between identifying the most vulnerable members of our community and actually finding affordable housing for them along with whatever support services they need. Encampments should not be seen as a city goal, but in the short-term, they provide a measure of normalcy that is better than the alternative. If you are interested in helping tent city residents in the future, whether through support or volunteering during their next set-up in three months, you can find more information on Tent City Collective’s Facebook page.

Urban Forestry: Trees for Seattle

The presence of trees plays a significant role in our urban environment. Integrating trees into the urban fabric properly can help support a healthy community by adding positive social, economic, and environmental values to the city. This week, our Project Manager Josh discussed the importance of urban forestry, and shared his experience of volunteering with the city of Seattle’s task force to protect urban forests in Seattle.

Trees for Seattle  is the urban forestry task force for the City of Seattle.   |   Image via  Trees for Seattle .

Trees for Seattle is the urban forestry task force for the City of Seattle.   |   Image via Trees for Seattle.

Written by Josh Janet, Project Manager | PE:

I worked briefly in the planning department of the City of Normandy Park in 2015. One of the common concerns that we would hear from citizens related to tree removal- half of the residents wanted to remove trees on their property to improve their views of the shoreline or expand their homes, while the other half wanted desperately to save all trees for ecological purposes.

Beautiful scenic views and home renovations notwithstanding, trees provide a number of benefits to urban environments. One of the programs managed by the city of Seattle for encouraging and developing urban forestry is Trees for Seattle (TFS), formerly known as “ReLeaf.”

TFS advocates for increasing the urban canopy cover across the city while nurturing and supporting existing trees and green spaces. Canopy cover is defined as the “percentage of the city that is covered by trees, as seen in an aerial view.” There are obvious advantages of trees- they are pleasant to look at and increase property values. Trees also provide natural stormwater management through the reduction of runoff of paved surfaces; reduce the urban heat island effect, which diminishes the need for HVAC in the height of summer and winter; and mitigate air pollution near congested streets.

According to the report Urban Tree Canopy Analysis Project Report: Looking Back and Moving Forward, commissioned by the city of Seattle in 2009, “the city adopted an Urban Forest Management Plan in 2007 with a goal of increasing the city's tree canopy to 30% [in 30 years]. In order to prioritize investments to those actions that will create the greatest tree canopy gain, the City determined that they needed a better understanding of current canopy cover, recent trends in canopy gain and loss, the impacts of development, and tree planting potential. They also wanted to create a baseline to monitor progress against the 30% canopy cover goal.”

Additional reports provided on the TFS website only date back to 2007, but they state that at that time, the city had around 22.9% tree canopy coverage. The Eastlake neighborhood, for which Urbal’s office is located, included less than 15% overall canopy coverage. I would suspect this number has not improved much since then, considering the incredible growth in development experienced along Eastlake Avenue.

So how can the average citizen get involved with Seattle’s urban forestry efforts? TFS also organizes volunteer work parties to promote stewardship in neighborhoods across the city for the natural environment. More than 100 work parties have been conducted at sites city-wide, engaging over 150 volunteers, including one in the Wallingford neighborhood that I volunteered at this past weekend (as well as once last year).

The work at this particular site- the landscaped triangle at North 46th Street and Aurora Avenue North- began in 2014 with the removal of invasive species that were not only harming existing mature streets, but causing sightline issues for pedestrians near a busy arterial. TFS removed English Ivy (growing into tree canopies), Black Locust Seedlings, and various grasses. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2015, the group once again weeded invasive species, but also placed 250 new plants in the area. They chose White Rock Rose shrubs for the triangle due to its high drought tolerance, low growth traits, and low maintenance needs. Ironically, White Rock Rose is not a native Pacific Northwest species, but there are no concerns that this plant is going to overtake native plants.

Volunteers helped clean up the site after removing invasive weeds in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle.   |   Image of  Wallingford Work Party  via  Trees for Seattle .

Volunteers helped clean up the site after removing invasive weeds in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle.   |   Image of Wallingford Work Party via Trees for Seattle.

I would encourage those that are interested in either urban forestry or just volunteering more to take a look at TFS’s website for upcoming volunteer work parties. The organizers bring food and coffee for volunteers as well as all the necessary tools and gloves for the work. The work can be backbreaking, but it’s a rewarding experience as you witness the growth over time of new trees and shrubs in your neighborhood.


  • “Watershed Forestry Resource Guide.” Center for Watershed Protection and US Forest Service. Last visited: 08 Feb 2016. Available WWW: http://forestsforwatersheds.org/urban-tree-canopy.