On the fence outside of Camp Second Chance, a tent city of about 50 people on Myers Way in West Seattle, hangs a string of prayer flags, a sign announcing a weekly clothing giveaway and a large piece of burlap fabric painted with smiling stick figures dressed in bright, tie-dyed clothes. It says “Homeless Lives Matter.”
A generator just past the gate emits a constant groaning sound. That will soon be replaced with power lines connecting the camp to the city’s power grid, one of many infrastructure improvements planned for the camp, said Polly Trout, founder of the Buddhist nonprofit Patacara.
The proposed power lines represent a sea change in the city’s stance on the camp, campers and Patacara. The relationship between them had been tense since Trout, armed with a pair of bolt cutters, clipped the lock off the gate of the small strip of fenced off city land and took it over. The act of defiance launched a standoff between the campers and the city that lasted for months, with threats that the camp would be swept just two weeks after moving in.
That was before city officials and neighbors got to know the residents, who insist on sober living and just want the ability to sleep peacefully at night, get up and go to work, said Eric Davis, a cofounder of Camp Second Chance who manages day-to-day operations at the camp.
“We stood our ground, maintained our composure and let people judge by actions not what their assumptions were, what their phobias were,” Davis said.
On Feb. 6, the city offered Patacara a $200,000 contract to improve the site and conditions for the people living there. The money marks a turning point for the organization, which will make the jump from a pure volunteer operation to a professional, if scrappy, service provider.
“It’s a big deal,” Trout said. “This month I hired paid staff for the first time.”
One of those is Trout herself, as Patacara’s executive director, a half-time position.
Trout is a medium-to-short woman with wild brown hair and a warm, ready laugh. As she walked through the camp visiting the computer room, television room and kitchen, it became clear that she knows most everyone who lives there, and the residents care for her a great deal: In the kitchen tent, a calendar attached to a refrigerator has her birthday marked.
All of her work happens in her spare time — she has another job providing care to an elderly woman, a position she is loath to give up because of her affection for her client. She’s also a single mother of three teenagers and one adult child. Even so, in the last six months, Trout has been able to help organize and support the encampment, a democratic, self-managed, clean and sober tent city that has doubled in size since its inception in June.
The city contract will help ease the burden and diversify the city’s portfolio of encampment providers to include a Buddhist organization, which embraces notions of mindfulness, interdependence and impermanence, Trout said.
Trout’s vision for Patacara’s role in the camp is that of a service provider. She wants to get case managers involved, offer family mediation services to help people reconnect with estranged loved ones and find ways to get people indoors.
Eventually, she hopes to open a new, low-barrier encampment that would welcome people with substance abuse problems, which isn’t an option for Camp Second Chance, whose residents, former members of Tent City 3, require a substance-free community.
The first step, however, is to raise the money that she needs to lock down the city contract. Her agreement with the city requires her to come up with $42,000 in private donations, $30,000 of which must be in-hand by March 1.
She’s already managed to raise roughly half, and is working hard to meet the goal, which is due in just one week from this printing. When asked what would happen if the fundraiser fell short, Trout just laughed.
“We’re going to raise it,” she said. “That’s not an option.”