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The Hidden Homeless: Out of sight and out of mind in Pierce County
This story is the first part of a two part series on Pierce County's hidden homeless population.
Just off a trail in the westernmost section of the former Washington State University Forest sat a small sign as you passed a makeshift gate to another, less-used trail.
“Paradise Cove,” it read, and like a mailbox of sorts, it marked the home of Daryl Shaw, a homeless man who until two weeks ago lived in the forest.
“To me, it was paradise,” said Daryl Shaw, tears welling up in his eyes. “It was all I had.”
It wouldn’t look like much to most people, but for the past year, Shaw had made the spot his home, collecting items from around the forest and surrounding areas to build a small structure to keep him out of the weather, and a large fire pit and stove to keep him warm in the winter and cook his meals.
Using wooden pallets as a floor and an old mattress as bedding, Shaw had built a structure with a tarp overhead and a series of sleeping bags.
“It’s my house,” he said. “Most everything was stuff I found and made use of it.”
There were benches and blankets, desks, chairs, a golf bag and several utensils, all stacked neatly near the stove, giving the section of woods a camp-like feel.
“I had to have a place to live and had nowhere to do it and this has been a real good place,” Shaw said. “I guess I knew I couldn’t stay here forever.”
The structure was so sturdy and secure, Shaw rode out this past winter’s ice storm at the Cove, using a battery charger box to supply power and his stove - built from an old shopping cart and hundreds of rocks Shaw gathered from around the forest - to keep warm.
There was even a beautiful hand-built stair case, cut into the ground and marked with birch branches - stripped of bark so they would glow in the moonlight - complete with a bannister than travelled down the hill and back to another trail.
The section of forest, owned by Quadrant and slated to become a housing development in the future, was a quiet spot where the recovering addict called “a place to make a life.”
“It’s not park land,” Shaw said, “that would be wrong.”
Park land or not, Shaw was trespassing. On May 15, a sweep of the forest by the city of Bonney Lake Public Works and Police Departments led to the demolition of Shaw’s encampment, something he took with a grain of salt.
“I guess I knew I couldn’t stay here forever,” he said as he watched backhoes tear apart his camp.
His camp was discovered during the May 21 Parks Appreciation day in which residents walked the trails picking up trash and debris.
Shaw chatted amiably with the police as he gathered his belongings. He said they warned him they were coming in, but he had heard that before and did not believe them.
A thin man in his mid-50s—with a shock of wild, mad scientist hair on his head—Shaw acted as ringleader and patriarch for many of the homeless and transients in the forest.
Shaw is a recovering addict and found solace in the woods and the work. Several other homeless people cited Shaw as a positive influence on the forest, always working to help those who wound up in the woods find a place to sleep.
“If it wasn’t for Daryl, these woods wouldn’t be safe,” said Melinda Vollmer, who lived in the forest for three years. “He’s a good guy.”
Shaw is one of the hundreds of hidden homeless people living in the woods, parking lots and hillsides of East Pierce County, according to experts who deal with the issue of homelessness in the county.
And unlike those in similar situations in the urbanized areas, they blend in, don’t want to be found and could be comprised of entire families, as well as single people.
“There’s more people than what’s seen out here,” Vollmer said. However, she said, a substantial number of people live in the forest.
Pat Williams, a program specialist for the Helping Hand House in Puyallup has been dealing with the issue of homelessness in East Pierce County for more than 10 years. He said folks like Shaw are what sweeps usually find, though he said half of all of the homeless, according to their numbers, are actually families, many of whom live with friends or out of their cars instead of making a home in the woods.
“It tends to be single moms, age 25-35, with a couple of children with very little education,” Williams said of the general demographics of the population he serves.
Williams said most find themselves homeless after a job loss, domestic incident or after the tipping point of a drug problem; but there's no single factor that contributes to the population.
“It’s just a conglomeration of so many things,” he said.
Exact numbers of homeless and families are difficult to know, because the problem stays hidden from view.
Marilee Hill-Anderson heads the STARR program for the Sumner School District, a program which offers assistance to low-income and homeless families to ensure children receive an education, and are fed during the school day.
So far this year, Hill-Anderson's programs have served 184 families, and she expects to serve 200 by the end of the year, she said.
According to Hill-Anderson, the primary factors leading their clients into homelessness has been the struggling economy and the high cost of living in East Pierce County; especially the cost of rent.
“Families on a fixed income can’t afford to live on their own in our community,” she said. “The vast majority of our families are living with someone else.”
For reporting purposes, “homeless” is defined by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act as anyone without a fixed, adequate, or regular permanent nighttime residence. That definition includes those living out of their cars or “couch surfing” with another family, as well as the forest-dwelling homeless.
Between 2 and 3 percent of students in sixth, eighth, and 10th grade are identified as homeless.
Hill-Anderson said that, in a soft economy, many families are doubling up in housing; which, to the letter of the law, makes one family homeless. In the Sumner School District, 70 percent of students identified as homeless are staying with someone else and not actually on the street. In communities where this happens, the disconnect can lead to the belief that youth vagrancy isn't a problem.
Among the 184 served, however, Hill-Anderson said the district counts 44 “unaccompanied youth,” meaning teens who are not in the custody of an adult or guardian, for whatever reason.
“When kids turn 18, if there’s economic stress in the family … it is not uncommon for parents to ask their kids - once they become 18 - to find a new place to live,” she said.
Many of those end up with friends. Some end up in the woods. Hill-Anderson said at least one student was living in the forest at the beginning of the year.
Hill-Anderson and Williams both said the lack of public transportation in the area has only compounded the problem as the poor and homeless often do not have reliable transportation and have trouble getting to and from employment, even if they could find work.
Hill-Anderson said the loss of buses has hit the poor particularly hard.
“It’s almost like being in a hole and... someone has taken your stepladder away,” she said.
Williams said the biggest misconception about the homeless population is that they want to be homeless or want to live on assistance.
“I have never found a family like that,” he said. “No one wants to live on welfare.”
In most cases, Hill-Anderson said, one or both parents are employed and simply can’t find housing in their price range. She said it was always difficult to find those people and let them know there is assistance.
“People need to know they are not alone,” she said.
But while the school district and the Helping Hand House are working to solve the issue of homelessness, for city officials it is often one of public safety, which led to the sweep in Bonney Lake two weeks ago.
“We want proper use (of the forest) dusk to dawn,” Bonney Lake Mayor Neil Johnson said of the sweep. “There’s no camping, no fires.
“We’re going to do everything we can to keep it clear,” he said.
Bonney Lake Police Chief Dana Powers said they typically deal with single individuals living in the woods.
“He’s what you’re going to find,” Powers said of Shaw, but added there are parts of the forest that are so dense, they can’t easily get into them.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of communities in the woods we haven't stumbled across,” she said.
Powers said they deal with crimes like burglaries and shoplifting perpetrated by the homeless living in the area.
“What kind of means to they have to get money?” Powers asked.
In total, the Bonney Lake sweep through the forest found about six small encampments, as well as Shaw’s large camp. No families were found, much to the relief of Trails Supervisor Steve Willadson who led the public works team.
“We’re just thankful we didn’t have to run families and kids out of here,” he said.
Shaw said he plans to stay over at a local church he attends, but was very sad to leave his place in the woods, a place that may not look like much but provided the comforts of home to him and many of the others staying in the forest.
Shaw, like Hill-Anderson and Williams, said he was worried about what would become of the homeless populations of the region.
“I have some things I need but I’m fine,” he said. “These people? What are they going to do?”
Next week: This series continues with a look at services available to the homeless populations of east Pierce County.
This story has been corrected: Trails Supervisor Steve Willadson's name was spelled wrong in the original story.