Poverty in the Hylebos woods - Transients move to the forests, parents concerned for children because of network of trails nearby

Jason Hagey; The News Tribune, Tacoma, WA


Federal Way, WA - The forested wetlands of south Federal Way have long been regarded as one of the region's little-known treasures, a rare undeveloped island in a sea of suburban sprawl.

Lately, though, a new group of people has discovered the woods around Hylebos Creek near Pacific Highway South: transients.

Over the past few months, homeless camps have flourished in the Hylebos watershed, raising concern among those who live nearby and attracting attention from police and social service providers.

No serious crimes have been connected to the camps, but transients are blamed for some petty thefts.

And they're suspected of starting several fires, including one blaze that took firefighters nearly a day to find and a few more days to extinguish.

A man wanted by the FBI for armed robbery recently was captured in the area.

"We are very concerned," said Marta Justus Foldi, director of development and facilities at the Spring Valley Montessori school, one of the few occupied buildings in the area.

Likewise, residents of the Park Trails subdivision and other neighborhoods that back up to the woods are expressing fears.

They say they've noticed more transients emerging from a network of trails behind their homes lately and walking through their cul-de-sacs. Their children walk to nearby schools and play in the woods.

Police are concerned, Federal Way Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said, and not only for the neighbors.

A few of weeks ago, she said officers found a 6-year-old girl living in a camp with her mother. The girl was taken into protective custody, but her mother - who had not committed a crime - remained.

"It's really sad," Kirkpatrick said. "Regardless, we can't allow it to continue."

Police launched a concentrated effort about five weeks ago aimed at eventually shutting down the camps. The issue is one of three special "problem-oriented policing projects" the department is working on this year.

They started by identifying all of the homeless camps in the city. They've found 15, mostly along the edges of Pacific Highway South, south of South 320th Street.

The biggest concentration is within the Spring Valley area along the Hylebos Creek, near South 356th Street. A few have been found in other parts of town.

Next, they went to work identifying all the individuals in the camps. One officer per squad has been assigned the job learning their names.

Transients with outstanding warrants are arrested when they're found, but clearing out the camps will take some time, Kirkpatrick said.

Washington doesn't have a vagrancy law, she noted, and it's not a crime to be homeless. Camping on public property is against the law, but many of the camps are on private property.

In those cases, police have begun contacting the owners and asking for permission to remove transients for trespassing.

Even that won't solve the problem, though, Kirkpatrick said. Someone might spend a night in jail, but he probably won't do much time. When they get out, the homeless are likely to return to the camps unless they have a good reason to stay away.

That might mean offering some kind of assistance. But transients sometimes refuse help, Kirkpatrick said, and in those cases police hope simply to make Federal Way as inhospitable as they can.

"We want to make it so you don't want to be here," Kirkpatrick said.

Some of the camps are relatively elaborate shanties furnished with bunks beds and desks. One man dragged in a stone bird bath; another nailed a dart board to a tree.

A couple who live in a bright blue tent built an outdoor "kitchen" where they keep bags of flour and an assortment of pots and pans.

It isn't clear what's driving the increase, other than the poor economy. Authorities in Tacoma and Seattle said they don't know of any effort to drive the homeless there out to the suburbs.

But Nancy Hohenstein of the Multi-Service Center, a major provider of social services in South King County, suspects some homeless are moving out of Seattle and coming south to the suburbs.

Foldi has noticed the spread. Until recently, a sense of security wasn't a problem at the Spring Valley Montessori school, she said.

But in the past few months, purses have been stolen from teachers' cars, and transients have been seen walking through the parking lot and splashing through the creek, she said.

"We've had people wandering around the property here," Foldi said. "We can't have people jumping out of the woods. It's creepy."

Chris Carrel, executive director of the Friends of the Hylebos Wetlands, has noticed the increase, too. He said it isn't safe any longer for people to go into the woods alone.

"I don't allow my staff or volunteers to go out there without at least two people," Carrel said. "You don't know who's out there."

A man named John McConnell who lost both his legs to gangrene years ago in Alaska now lives in a camp near South 356th Street. On a recent afternoon, a social worker found him sitting on the forest floor amid the debris of a campsite.

She came in search of him after he failed to show up for a fitting for a new prosthetic leg. A police officer who happened upon the meeting took a knife from John, which he called a "souvenir," before he climbed into the woman's car.

John Wright, a 44-year-old Chicago native, has been living in the woods off Pacific Highway South on and off for years, ever since he broke his leg and lost his job. He has no plans to leave.

"I don't have any other options," said Wright, who survives by taking odd jobs at a nearby truck stop. For entertainment, he shoots a pellet gun at targets or visits area stores.

Wright insists he isn't harming anyone by camping in the city.

"My religion is called, 'Don't mess with me, I don't mess with you,'" he said.

The police don't intend to turn a blind eye toward Wright or the other campers setting up shanties in Federal Way. But getting them out of the woods won't be easy.

Unlike Seattle or Tacoma, there aren't any shelters in Federal Way for single men. There are services available for women and families, including the Nike Homeless Shelter in Kent, which is run by the Multi-Service Center.

It offers families temporary shelter and helps them find transitional or low-income housing.

A program called FUSION - or Friends United to Shelter the Indigent, Oppressed and Needy - also helps homeless women with children by providing them with condominiums.

The group owns six condos in Federal Way and is about to open a seventh in Northeast Tacoma.

But those services are limited, and the problem is growing, said Peggy LaPorte, a founder of FUSION.

Those who live around the Hylebos don't need to be told that. But LaPorte suspects many others do.

"I think many of us are unaware of the tragedy taking place in the woods," she said.

Jason Hagey: 253-941-9634


SIDEBAR: Growing numbers

The number of homeless people in Seattle increased 23 percent this year in an annual street count conducted by The Seattle/King County Coalition of the Homeless and Operation Nightwatch.

Volunteers found 2,040 people sleeping outside last month as part of an unscientific snapshot, compared with 1,454 last year.

The group also found 82 homeless people in Kent, the first year the count has extended beyond Seattle. Next year, the count could extend into Auburn and Federal Way.

In Pierce County 1,167 homeless people were found during a count two years ago, the most recent conducted. Another is planned in January.

(Published 12:30AM, November 8th, 2002)


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