Breaking camp in Kitsap

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on Jan. 23rd, 2013

Twelve acres of woodland in East Bremerton have been home to homeless people for years. When the encampment is cleared January 31, 2013, the family they’ve created will be torn apart

First Place, General News, 2013
Society of Professional Journalists, Western Washington Chapter

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Adam Loomis marveled at his good fortune as he gazed at the place he called home: a 12-acre forest near the corner of Highway 303 and Northeast McWilliams Road in East Bremerton. The self-appointed “mayor of the East Bremerton woods,” Loomis has lived among the cedar, maple and alder trees for the past five years. “It’s so beautiful out here,” he said.

Loomis knew that within a matter of days, when the forest is cleared of numerous homeless encampments, life will be upended for him and the 10 or so other people who live in the woods in this working-class city in Kitsap County. But for the moment, as he stood in the 39-degree January chill, he admired the natural beauty of the forest. Then the tall and willowy Loomis adjusted his weather-beaten backpack, stepped onto a trailhead and entered the forest.

No more than 50 feet into the trees, he met Chanda “Sinammon” Gritters, a plump-faced woman sitting on a tree stump. She tilted a can of lager to her lips.

“We’re getting married,” Loomis said, and Gritters nodded. She took one last swig and crumpled the can against the tree bark before she dropped it onto a pile of trash near the base of the stump.

It was just before 11 a.m. on a Thursday.

As Loomis, 33, and Gritters, 36, walked deeper into the woods, the couple passed the ruins of previous encampments: a torn tent pitched under a sagging tarp, a rusted camp stove, a bike with no front tire, a heap of wet clothes.

A mud-covered welcome mat marked a fork in the trail. To the right, a path snaked into the distance. To the left, another path led to an open-sided shanty constructed from tarps attached to tree trunks and cut branches. The pair took the left fork.

“Incoming,” Loomis shouted.

Two other residents of the East Bremerton woods, Charles Reuste and Vicki, turned in response. Vicki smiled. She has a faded tattoo of a blue tear near her right eye. Between the pointer and middle fingers of her left hand, she held a lit cigarette, while her other fingers gripped a 24-oz. can of Steel Reserve, a lager with an alcohol content of 8.1 percent.

A small Christmas tree stood on a nearby table, its branches trimmed with silver-glitter snowflakes. On the ground, among the ferns and decaying leaves, plastic garbage bags overflowed among candy wrappers, empty plastic liquor bottles, camp chairs, piles of shirts and pants, rolled-up carpet remnants, rusty cans and a lone pink slipper.

“How come this place looks so immaculate?” Loomis asked. He popped open a 24-oz. can of malt liquor.

“We cleaned up,” Reuste said. He set down his container of V-8 juice on a crowded table and walked toward a rake.

The shanty doubled as the camp kitchen, and Vicki served as the cook. For New Year’s Eve, she’d fixed enough meatballs to feed 10 — which is how many people she thought still lived in the 12-acre woods. She didn’t know the exact number.

Neither did Loomis. “I love this place,” he said. “It’s kick-ass. But it’s Grand Central Station.”

The population fell by one last month, when campers kicked out a fellow resident, a veteran who they said turned into a bully when he drank. He navigated the woods in a wheelchair, which sat half-closed to the west of the shanty. “He will not come back,” Vicky said of the vet.

By the end of the month, neither will anyone else.

The 12-acre forest is privately owned, and the owners have asked the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Department to clear all campers from the woods. Everyone must leave by January 31.

Owners said the eviction was fueled in part by complaints from neighboring retailers citing aggressive interactions with campers. In 2012, nearly 300 calls went out from the vicinity for law enforcement or medical emergency services, resulting in 23 police incident reports linked to the encampment.

The campers said they aren’t to blame for the trouble. The actions of outsiders, lured by the presence of beer and alcohol, led to the rash of calls, they said.

But the residents of the East Bremerton woods have dealt with more than outsider activity and rampant alcoholism.

Last year, the county health department attempted to clean up the encampment. And this past summer one of the most beloved campers died.

The remaining holdouts said they bear no animosity to the owners, who’ve decided to have the camp cleared and hope to sell it for about $2 million.

Most of the residents have found places to go, but they said their community will be torn apart when the East Bremerton woods are cleared.

“We’re a family out here,” Vicki said.

The letter and the law

Campers said they first heard about the clearing not long after the sheriff’s department received a Nov. 28 letter from Morris Piha, one of four owners of the 12-acre forest. Piha wrote: “We need your assistance in moving the homeless occupants from our property… For the past two years we have worked with different Kitsap County departments to try and find a satisfactory solution without success.”

The Kitsap Sun first reported on the clearing in mid-December.

Speaking to Real Change by phone from Florida, Piha said he has owned the East Bremerton woods for more than 10 years. He has three partners.

He first became aware of people living on the land five years ago. “As long as they didn’t bother the adjoining owners, and as long as the county officials knew what was happening,” Piha said, “we did not mind having them there.”

But in the last year-and-a-half, he said, complaints have poured in from neighboring retailers who have experienced difficulties with people associated with the camp. Safeway and a pizza parlor sit to the northeast of the camp, while a family-owned business that trades in collectibles and other goods sits to the south.

Deputy Scott Wilson, spokesman for the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office, said a meeting was held to discuss the East Bremerton woods. It drew representatives from the sheriff’s department, fire department and organizations that serve homeless people.

In his letter, Piha, chairman of Bellevue-based Morris Piha Real Estate Services, proposed clearing out the campers on Jan. 31, 2013. Wilson said meeting attendees struggled to identify solutions to help the campers before the the removal date.

Along with complaints from retailers, hundreds of emergency service calls had been generated from the immediate vicinity of the encampment.

Wilson wrote in an email to Real Change that in 2012, the area surrounding the woods generated at least 282 police, fire and emergency service calls. While not all of those calls were related to the encampment, “many were” tied to the camp, Wilson wrote.

Sheriff’s deputies filed 23 incident reports linked to the camp, ranging from verbal disputes and criminal trespass to fourth-degree assault and first-degree robbery, which involves a robbery where someone is armed with or inflicts bodily injury with a deadly weapon.

Camp resident Reuste may have been the victim of that robbery. Reuste said that on Mother’s Day, an outsider visiting the encampment struck him in the back of the head with a machete. Closing up the gash required 15 staples, he said. He removed his Hard Rock Café baseball cap as he stood near the shanty, and Vicki’s fingers searched for the scar Reuste said lay beneath his ginger hair.

Piha said on the phone that as the property owner, he wanted to keep the people who work and live in and around the woods safe. He also wanted to clean up the area and contacted the county health department. Last year health department officials brought in Sani-Cans, portable restrooms with urinals and toilets, he said.

MaryAnn Smith, ministry associate of Taking it to the Streets Ministries, said she offered to help the health department. Over the course of a month, Smith paid several visits to the woods to remove debris. A lot of the garbage was generated by people who had pitched a tent, camped for several months, then departed, leaving behind the tent and its contents. “It was a mess,” she said.

Smith said she attended an early December meeting to discuss the fate of the campers, which was held by a group dedicated to helping the homeless. She said Piha’s letter was read aloud. She had to inform the campers about it the next day because the campers weren’t invited. “They really should [have been],” Smith said, “because it’s their community.”

Fear factors

Smith said her ministry runs a number of free meal programs for low-income and homeless people. Every Thursday evening she visits a site adjacent to the East Bremerton woods to feed only the residents who live in that camp.

A few people assist with the effort, but she said most locals don’t want to go anywhere near the encampment. “I think Bremerton has a real problem with the homeless,” Smith said.

The number of homeless people in Kitsap County remains a mystery.

The Washington Department of Commerce reported that in 2012, there were 372 homeless people in Kitsap County. The figure comes from a countywide survey.

But a combined effort of the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and Kitsap County homeless service providers found 2,781 Kitsap County residents who self-identified as homeless, between October 2011 and September 2012, said a DSHS spokesperson. The number represents a 14 percent increase over the preceding 12 months.

Camp resident Reuste said he knew people feared the campers in the East Bremerton woods. “It’s a part of society that society don’t want to deal with,” he said.

Vicki echoed the sentiment. A resident of the camp since September 2011, she said most people were too scared to come to the camp. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Vicki said.

Piha said that when he visited the property he co-owns roughly five months ago, he didn’t enter the woods. “I made a point not to go in there,” Piha said.

Campers themselves experienced a different type of fear last spring and summer, and it concerned their fellow resident Raymond Bendorf.

The Kitsap Sun reported in mid-June that Bendorf had been missing since April 2012. Days after that article ran, Bremerton police brought in cadaver dogs to search the woods. Nothing was found. Donors offered $500 for any information about Bendorf’s disappearance.

On July 22, a woman discovered the remains of a body in another wooded area, this one behind an old Kmart building more than a mile south of the East Bremerton encampment.

Kitsap County coroner Greg Sandstrom said he was called to the scene. “We don’t find many people who are deteriorated to bones,” he said.

Genetic testing identified the skeleton as Bendorf. Sandstrom said a forensic anthropologist found no evidence of violence.

The coroner’s office listed the cause of death as “undetermined.”

Nearly six months after the discovery of the remains, camp residents fell silent at the mention of Bendorf’s name. Only Gritters, the bride-to-be, would speak.

“He was one of my best friends,” she said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.”

Family tradition

A short time later, Gritters sat on the ground beneath the shanty with tears in her eyes. She wasn’t crying over Bendorf. She teared up because an unexpected guest had arrived.

“This is my mother,” Gritters said, her hand resting on the leg of a woman who slouched on a nearby barstool.

But the woman, Risa Fafara, is not Gritters’ birth mother.

“We are related in the soul,” Fafara said holding a can of lager. She had limp black hair and a face so puffy her eyes were closed to slits.

Fafara, 47, said she’d lived off and on in the East Bremerton woods for more than four years. She’d recently traveled to North Dakota to escape a mean boyfriend and hadn’t planned to return.

When she showed up that morning, she celebrated her reunion with campmates with drink. Drinking, she said, was a mistake, because she had hepatitis C. “My liver is shot, my pancreas is shot,” she said. “I’m in a bad way.”

While most residents viewed the upcoming eviction with sadness, Fafara thought it might save her life: A homeless service agency had promised to buy her a ticket back to North Dakota, where she had family and could enter detox.

“If I keep drinking—” Fafara interrupted herself midsentence to lean over the barstool. She reached her fingers to the ground in search of her lager. But the empty can had rolled away, so she continued talking. “—it ain’t gonna be long. And I don’t wanna die.”

Gritters hugged Fafara, and the pair launched into a Hank Williams Jr. tune, Fafara slurring the words: “If I get stoned, I’m just carryin’ on an old fam’ly tradition.”

The women chuckled as Loomis, the self-appointed mayor of the encampment, said it was time to visit his new, secret campsite. He picked up a pair of plastic chairs and beckoned to his fiancée Gritters.

Fafara wanted to tag along, but first she walked to the side of the shanty. She pulled her jeans down her thighs and squatted. Then she urinated.

Sheriff Wilson said that along with concerns about garbage at the encampment, the health department had wanted to address sanitation issues. “There was a lot of people peeing and pooping in the woods,” he said.

The campers appeared to take a lack of a bathroom in stride. As Loomis, Fafara and Gritters approached an exit to the camp, Gritters pulled down her jeans to pee. Her fiancé and Fafara waited near the tree stump where Gritters had crumpled the lager can.

When she finished, the trio left the woods.

The Sandtrap

The Loomis-Gritters campsite lay in a hidden location, several blocks from the East Bremerton woods. To reach it, Loomis walked through the Safeway parking lot with the chairs in his arms. Customers stared. Gritters and Fafara peeked into grocery store trashcans.

Earlier in the morning, the campers said they have a troubled relationship with Safeway. They used to visit the store’s bathrooms to wash up, and they also bought their favorite brands of lager there. But Loomis said the store eventually banned them all because they were homeless.

A public affairs official from Safeway, Inc. declined repeated requests for comment for this story.

Camp residents said the prohibition only applied to the inside of Safeway. It did not bar them from moving around outside the store.

Campers said they purchased items for group meals by pooling together their food stamps, which they supplemented with money raised “flying:” Holding a cardboard sign that flies in the breeze as a means to panhandle. Loomis said most days, everyone in the camp pulled a shift flying the sign.

En route to the new campsite, Gritters and Fafara held a sign as they stood on the curb near the Northeast McWilliams Road entrance to the Safeway parking lot. Dozens of cars passed. None stopped. The trio forged on.

They arrived at a sandy area overrun with Scotch Broom and blackberry brambles. In a clearing, Loomis had built a platform out of pallets. A tent rested on the platform. He’d slung a tarp over the tent. He set down the plastic chairs. “I call [the camp] The Sandtrap,” Loomis said.

Several yards away he’d constructed a latrine: He’d dug a hole and covered it with an elevated wooden lid that had a square opening. The opening sat over the hole. A plastic toilet seat framed the opening.

Loomis said that he used to renovate houses, but when the economy tanked, he couldn’t find a job. He had no immediate plans to look for other employment. “It takes too much work as it is to survive,” Loomis said.

As Gritters smoked and drank, she said she was sober years ago, then in 2008 she was diagnosed with endometriosis. The next year, she said, she underwent treatment while sleeping on the streets of Bremerton. She started drinking again after treatment ended and hasn’t stopped.

“So we drink because we’re alcoholics,” Gritters said.

“Hey, babe,” Loomis said. “Does the alcohol help us?”

“Yes, it does,” she said.

Even though the new campsite was more exposed than his encampment in the woods, Loomis said he would enjoy staying at The Sandtrap. “You might as well live in the Garden [of Eden],” he said as he looked around. “We have everything.”

Loomis paused. “Although I wish I had a washer and dryer,” he said.

Last suppers

As night fell, Loomis sat in a sheltered corner of an empty parking lot, near the southern boundary of the East Bremerton woods, and waited for dinner to arrive. He pulled back the tab to a can of malt liquor.

Nearby stood Maliki Callun, who had set up a tent barely 50 yards away, next to two other campers. Callun, 19, said he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. He didn’t know where he’d move when the camp was cleared, but he had a game plan.

Threading together multiple narratives, Callun said that if he found a canvas tent, he would turn it into something better than a house, complete with a constant source of electricity and 24-hour Internet service, because, at the age of 4, he’d stumbled upon a computer shortcut that allowed him to glimpse the inner workings of the motherboard, which, once translated into computer code, would earn him enough money to go to college.

Loomis smiled at Callun, and Callun fell silent for a moment.

“I can be kind of loquacious,” Callun said. Then he began another monologue.

Around 5:15 p.m., a white van pulled into the parking lot. MaryAnn Smith, from Taking it to the Streets Ministries, sat behind the steering wheel. She opened the van’s rear door to serve the campers their Thursday night supper: clam chowder, ham sandwiches, coffee, hot chocolate and homemade carrot cake.

“We gotta serve them the whole nine yards,” Smith said of the menu.

Loomis peered in the back of the van. “I need one for [Tafara, Gritters] and me,” he said, referring to his fiancée and her spiritual mother. Neither one had come to pick up their dinners. Smith and an assistant packed food in take-out containers and placed them in three plastic bags.

As Loomis struggled to cram the bags of food into his weather-beaten backpack, he said he knew the 12-acre forest was up for sale. He said he was thankful that Piha, the property owner, had let people live on the land for so many years.

Yet he didn’t like to think what would become of the place that had been his home for five years. “It’ll be even worse if and when [developers] cut down the trees,” Loomis said.

More people trickled in to collect meals, including Reuste, in his Hard Rock baseball cap, and Vicki, with the blue tear tattoo. Extra servers arrived. A group of 10 people stood in the orange glow of a sodium-vapor light.

Vicki said that she and Reuste had planned to move into a 22-foot trailer in Brownsville, about five miles north of the encampment, once the woods were cleared after January 31. But the pair had changed their minds: They would now take a Greyhound bus to Colorado on February 1. Reuste has family there.

But his birth family differed from their family in the woods. Vicki said she’d grown attached to her fellow campers. Not only would she miss them, she said, but she’d miss this part of East Bremerton, too.

Regardless of the imminent clearing, she didn’t think she could abandon the trees or the people who lived among them.

“Yeah,” Vicki said. “I’ll be back.”

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