Pilot program suggests ‘tough love’ for those refusing services at Green River encampment

A homeless encampment hidden in the hills overlooking the Green River is now in the spotlight.

King County Council Member Reagan Dunn is calling for a "tough love" approach in a pilot project that focuses on the camp's removal and placement of its residents into housing, mental, alcohol or drug treatment if necessary.

If residents reject the offer, then they could be forcibly removed.

"The political will at King County to remove folks for trespassing doesn’t exist," said Dunn.

Dunn is also running to be the Republican candidate in the 8th Congressional District in the August primary.

The future of an estimated 100 people living in the shadows at the sprawling camp on a hillside near the Green River is now being spotlighted by the councilman. Its location near 94th Pl S and Green River Rd is important because lies in unincorporated King County, and not within the city limits of the two closest cities, Kent and Auburn.

It sits on land owned by the King County Department of Transportation, therefore it’s the county and its staff who are responsible for what happens on that land.

Several campers proudly admit, they have been living on densely forested hillside for years.

Deborah Tucker is disabled and lives closer to the road and said she’s had to live in the camp because her rent doubled, and she can’t afford it.

"So I’ve basally been out here for 100 days, it’s not pleasant," said the 65-year-old. "It’s the first time I've ever been homeless, its life-threatening."

Despite the county spending tens of millions of dollars a month on behavioral services and housing for those living unsheltered, it’s not equipped to removal encampments and provide outreach service like the City of Seattle’s homelessness response system.

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Dunn said King County has a policy of not clearing homeless encampments on county property and has no procedures in place for doing so. He presented legislation for the camp to be removed, and its residents be provided outreach services.

"Because if we can't do it on one parcel of property, how can we do it on a countywide scale in one of the nation’s largest counties?" said Dunn. 

Outreach for encampments in unincorporated King County is now on the shoulders of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA).

REACH, an outreach service provider contracted with the KCRHA, is in the camp to offer help. At least two long term campers have said they are leery of accepting services and have not received an offer of housing.

"I don’t trust them," said one person who did not want to be identified. "I prefer living out here because I like to live away from everyone."

The Salvation Army, Union Gospel Mission, REACH, and the cities of Kent and Auburn have been doing outreach in the camp, said KCRHA spokesperson Anne Marten.

The sheriff’s department does not remove encampments per department policy, and the county has frowned upon their employees entering camps due to COVID protocols.

"It’s time that we changed that," said Dunn.

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"You don't allow people to live like this, but there has to be a point where we as society or county say such and such behavior is not going to be allowed to continue," said Sherriff Deputy Steve Johnson, who is assigned to the Department of Transportation as an investigator.