Toward the end of a long dirt path, a man known as Cuba lives in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home that he constructed with his own two hands in just four months. On a clear day, he can see a driving range from a porch he fashioned from scrap pallets. The porch wraps around his huge, leafy garden and leads up to his plywood door.
“Watch out for this,” Cuba said as he tapped his finger on the latch, which stuck out just beyond the door frame. “I’m gonna fix that soon.”
With rugs on the floor, a cozy seating area around a TV, a refrigerator in the kitchen, and a tiny teacup chihuahua named Federico, the home is not unlike any other in Seattle–except for the fact that it boasts an effective cooling system.
After a while sitting inside, you might forget that one of the home’s four walls is actually the side of Cuba’s new RV, and that the roof overhead is made of canopy and tarp.
Cuba and his roommates, Rodney and Shyanne, have made their home in the encampment near the Home Depot on Aurora.
“This is a home,” said Shyanne, a young woman who has lived outside in the area for two years. “And even though we're not family, it feels like a family, you know?”
But on Friday, the City posted a notice of its plans to sweep the estimated 26 residents of the family’s encampment on Tuesday morning.
When I asked the group what they planned to do, the three of them looked at one another, hoping someone else would have the answer. With the City relentlessly sweeping unhoused people from site to site, Cuba said they were getting tired of the constant destabilization. If they didn’t think resistance would put them in danger, they’d defend their home on Tuesday morning, he said.
Under Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration, the City has ramped up its anti-homelessness practices, sweeping encampments on a near daily basis. His One Seattle Homelessness Action Plan dashboard proudly reports that under his leadership, the City has “removed” over 800 tents and 400 RVs from January to July.
Cuba said he accounts for at least two of those data points. Earlier this year, he lived at Green Lake, but the City swept him. Then he moved to Woodland Park, but the City swept him there, too.
Cuba said a Parks and Recreation employee that unhoused people unlovingly call “Ranger Bill” told him he could move to his current spot near Aurora and the City wouldn’t bug him.
That promise of stability gave Cuba new hope. So he parked his RV, built a home, and put well over 100 hours of hard labor into his garden, where he grows just about everything you could imagine: onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, apples, lemons, even cactus.
Cuba doesn’t like to brag too much about his garden, but Shyanne said it cultivated a community. Their neighbors, both housed and unhoused, took notice of the sprouting greenery and brought over seeds and water.
As crops slowly begin to ripen, the whole community shares in the harvest. If left to his own devices, Cuba said the garden would grow beyond his community’s needs, and he would donate the excess to the food bank.
Not only did the newfound stability give Cuba a chance to flex his gardening muscles, but Rodney said he’s made better life choices of his own ever since moving to the Aurora encampment. He used to live in a tent by himself, but after he suffered a heart attack four months ago, Cuba took him in. Now, Rodney sleeps on a queen-size bed in his own room beside the RV. Since living there, he has finally started taking care of his health, even visiting the doctor. It’s the first time in five years he has had the stability to tend to such basic needs, he said.
A Broken Promise
But Ranger Bill’s promise of stability didn’t last long. Whether the three of them decide to hold their ground or pack up their things, Cuba said he looks forward to seeing Ranger Bill on Tuesday.
“I want to look him straight in the eye when they come to sweep us, because he lied to me,” Cuba said.
I asked the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation about Ranger Bill and the alleged promise. I will update if the department responds.
For a long time, that dirt path had served as a safe space for unhoused people, according to Shyanne. She’s lived there for two years, and this is the first time the City has announced a sweep in her memory. But recently, she said the nearby towing company has reported multiple thefts. She was not shy about blaming some of those crimes on a few of her neighbors, but she felt the sweep wrongly punished the whole community.
“If they found a stolen car in the trailer park, they wouldn’t evict the whole neighborhood,” Rodney said.
Besides, Shyanne said the City has given unhoused people no incentive not to blow their spots. Even the most “well-behaved” encampments get swept eventually, and when someone doesn’t feel stable ownership over their space, they likely won’t take care of it, she said.
In recent months, the Mayor has been sensitive about his growing reputation for displacing and destabilizing people who live outside. At a press conference after the City swept Cuba for the second time this year at Woodland Park, Harrell said that “under this administration, we don’t sweep. We don’t chase people out. We treat and we house.”
Not an Option
While the City routinely claims that sweeps are actually efforts to house people, for many victims of sweeps, that is just not the case.
Sometimes, ahead of a high-profile sweep, the City will soften the blow with outreach and shelter referrals. An outreach worker told The Stranger that REACH has spent months building relationships at this encampment. However, because the City saves shelter space for the sweep of the day, case workers struggle to make many referrals in advance. That process does not make for a humane transition to better shelter options but rather it forces people into an ultimatum when City employees come to tear down homes.
The Mayor’s Office said in an email that as of Friday, that the City had offered shelter to all 26 residents. As of Monday morning, three people had accepted the offers.
Rodney said the HOPE team offered him a tiny shelter this week. The catch? It’s in White Center. Rodney said he will decline the offer, because he can’t face another setback in his health after taking the step to connect with doctors and services near his current home.
Contrary to what the Mayor’s Office said, Shyanne said no one from the City has offered her any shelter, much less a tiny shelter. She wouldn’t take it if they did, though. She doesn’t want to lose her support system. She said Cuba is the first person she’s lived with who helps her without the expectation of something in return. He has even met her mom. She said she’s safer with Cuba and Rodney than she would be behind a locked door at a Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) tiny shelter village.
Cuba, who also had not been offered shelter, said a tiny shelter wasn’t an option for him, either. He has an RV, a trailer, and a car, not to mention his furniture, a full kitchen, and the garden that he can’t take with him.
Unfortunately, local leaders have so far failed to accommodate the estimated 2,700 people living in vehicles in King County. At the moment, LIHI is only sizing up locations for an RV safe lot pilot program that will one day accommodate 35 vehicles, according to KOMO.
While Cuba said he would be open to moving to an RV safe lot, he said the lot would have to allow him to continue living on his own terms. After all, he said, he is too old for a babysitter. LIHI tiny shelter residents have complained about strict rules and poor management, so the nonprofit’s future safe lot still may not be an adequate fit for him.
That leaves two options: The three could move at least temporarily, or they could hold their ground in the face of the sweep.
Pack up, or Fight Back?
The roommates don’t know if they will be able to move their entire home and set up the heating, cooling, and underground plumbing system, especially with no clue how long the City will leave them be.
If they do go through the trouble of packing up an entire house, Cuba said they would move up a few blocks and then come back the next day. He doesn’t want to give up his plumbing system or his garden, both of which he fears the City will destroy in his absence. I asked the Mayor’s office for comment about what will become of the garden after the sweep, and I will update if I get a response.
But with growing frustration toward the City, Cuba is more tempted than ever to resist the sweep.
“What is the City’s goal?” Cuba asked. “The City keeps perpetuating the same pattern over and over and over again. Moving us here, moving us over there. When will it end?”
In this desperation, Rodney said resisting feels like the only way to effect change. But Cuba shook his head at the idea.
“No matter what we say, no matter what we do, the people coming on Tuesday have the power and the law on their side,” Cuba said. “If you put up a fight, easily they can kill you. Easily.”
Cuba, Rodney, and Shyanne said they would prefer that the City just continue to ignore them rather than uprooting them, their home, and their beloved garden. If the City allowed them to keep their home, Cuba said his next project would be to expand the garden, build picnic benches for a community space, and, of course, fix the latch on his front door.
If the City wanted to help, the three said the City could provide tiny shelters or permanent housing to neighbors without the threat of a sweep. As for those who like their current homes, Cuba said the neighborhood could use more reliable trash pickup and portable toilets for those who don’t have an RV.
But they don’t have much faith that the City will change course. As Rodney said, “They wish they could post their 72-hour notice and we would just fade away. They don’t care what happens to us, as long as they don’t have to look at us.”