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Sunday, July 26, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Youths' Illegal Life In City Park Goes Largely Unnoticed

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

NOT FAR FROM the bustling heart of the University District, homeless young people have found a haven for an outlaw way of life in the forests of Cowen and Ravenna parks.

Most leave well before the darkness settles.

They head off toward houses in the Fremont neighborhood or shelters in the University District or whatever else they might claim for a few hours.

But some stay. And if they're still around when day becomes night, when the park covers itself with a warm blanket of dusk underneath an empire of stars, then home is here.

One by one, or in groups of two and three, the denizens of Seattle's Cowen Park tread quietly into the woods, into a small, little-known encampment.

There are many reasons the 20 or 30 people - mostly young men ranging in age from late teens to mid-30s - reside in the 60-plus acres of forested public land in the University District. They are bold world travelers, soul-searching hippies, brash runaways, abused adolescents, aimless wanderers. They are sane or deluded, drug savvy and life weary.

Over the years, they have gathered at Cowen Park and adjacent Ravenna Park in an outlaw life that juxtaposes self-proclaimed freedoms with the harsh context of homelessness.

The community and the parks have developed a reputation among subcultures nationwide as something of a safe haven for runaways and those who can't, or won't, fit into the mainstream. The homeless here distinguish themselves from "Ave rats" - young people who live on the streets along University Way Northeast, where the risks are higher and the drugs are harder.

There are similar hideaways in Berkeley and Venice, Calif.; Tempe and Flagstaff, Ariz.; and Great Falls, Mont., park residents say. The warmer areas are more popular during the winter.

Last month, two girls who had run away from North Dakota turned up unharmed in Cowen Park. "The girls had heard the park was a safe place for runaways, that everyone took care of each other and saw they weren't bothered," said one of their fathers, who declined to be named to protect his daughter's privacy. "They lived there safely for a week."

Younger daytimers, male and female, most with permanent homes, gather here regularly to add to the sleepover population and the atmosphere. Dogs and guitars, marijuana and anxiety are as much a part of this alternative reality as harder drugs and hunger.

"It's a reality that you couldn't understand," says Sam, 20, who has lived on and off in Cowen Park for several years. "There are different values out here. This is the university of life."

None of the young campers here give their last names, saying they don't want to be found by families or busted by police. Sam's friend, Azriel, a 25-year-old from Kentucky who is in the middle of a second stay in Cowen Park, adds:

"We're individuals and we're out here for our different reasons, but don't judge us. We're trying to figure stuff out, just like everyone else."

Cowen and Ravenna parks, established in the early 1900s, are thick with dark-green foliage and lined with narrow, winding trails, perfect for contemplation, exercise - and hiding. A deep ravine cuts through the middle.

Separated only by an invisible property line, the parks are popular with joggers, sunbathers and young families. The Friends of Cowen Park recently raised more than $1,700 to upgrade the park's playground.

Because of the U District location, there are intellectual outlets in the form of libraries, bookstores and tens of thousands of students. The area is also teeming with resources such as teen feeds, church shelters and food banks. And there are plenty of bathrooms.

Park inhabitants say they are just soaking up this environment - not bothering anybody - waiting for whatever happens next. They claim to act as the park's stewards, picking up trash daily and staying away from surrounding homes.

Camping overnight inside the park is illegal, and Seattle police say they regularly patrol the area and issue citations. If they find people sleeping there at night, they roust them out and refer them to homeless shelters.

But the police say they haven't had any unusual problems with the park's inhabitants.

"It's nothing outstanding," says Officer Carmen Best, a spokeswoman for the Seattle Police Department. "There are the typical problems like littering and narcotics use, just like anywhere else in the city."

The homeless here keep a low-enough profile that neither Seattle Parks and Recreation crews nor administrators have complained about them. Dewey Potter, the head of media relations for Seattle Parks, says she knew of occasional loitering problems in the park, but had never heard of the people staying overnight.

Quentin and Bernita Jackson, a couple in their 60s, have lived across the street from the park, on Brooklyn Avenue Northeast, for 30 years. Close as they are to the homeless encampment, they say they would rather see troubled young people find refuge in the park than have to fend for themselves on the streets.

"They're practically invisible," Bernita Jackson says. "They aren't noisy or anything."

Not all the neighbors who live along the park are so cavalier. Some of them grouse when the Jacksons allow the homeless into their yard to drink from their garden hose, fearing violation of an invisible line of safety.

When Everett and Kathy Spring moved here 12 years ago, the proximity to Cowen Park was a plus. They have watched the homeless population - and accompanying problems like drug use and public urination - increase ever since. They have rousted some homeless kids off the playground equipment at 11 a.m. so their kids can swing. And whenever Kathy Spring sees a tent pitched, she says, she calls the police.

"It's been really difficult," she says, as she keeps a watchful eye on her 2-year-old triplet sons. "No one's ever done anything that's dangerous, but they're obnoxious. . . . I don't want my children exposed to them."

The Springs have joined some other neighbors to push for tougher ordinances against living in the park.

A home hidden from view

Sam spends his nights at a spot he calls the Triangle, a smooth flat clearing on a hillside accessible only by secret paths. Surrounded by three thickly shrubbed trees and hidden from any trail, the Triangle is quiet and cozy, with a Pop-Tarts box for a garbage can and an area he has designated as a bathroom about 25 feet away.

He smiles and points to the other amenities: a thick foliage canopy to keep out the rain; "guest quarters" complete with fallen-log bench; and the view, a glorious picture of green, highlighted by the steep ravine.

"Just because you're sleeping in the woods, that doesn't mean you can't be clean and respectable," he says. "Homelessness doesn't have to equate with poverty."

Campsites are reflections of personalities. Some sleep in plain view, resigned to a bundle of blankets and dirty clothes.

Others, like Sam, plunge head-first into the trees. Being out in the open is dangerous, he says. Besides, he says, "winos" are always passing out right next to you.

For Sam, life in the park seems to be right out of "Lord of the Flies." He goes by the nickname "Wolf" and came to this spot after he let his "energies" guide him through the forest one night. He urinates regularly around his squat to keep animal trespassers at bay.

"Why would I want to go back to a messed-up life after I've lived out here?" he asks. Sam left home five years ago because he had serious problems with his family and felt "angry at the teachings of mainstream society." He maintains occasional contact with his father.

"Out here, every day, I'm learning truths about people. Life itself is educating me. I'm not bound down by heavy walls and unrealistic expectations. I have my health and I'm happy. I'm free to come and go. What do you have that I don't have?"

Fear and loathing in the park

But life here is not just games and good times.

This ad hoc community often dissolves into factions that tolerate each other only out of necessity. It lives amid the soft swirlings of rumors and park lore. ("Did you hear that gang of drunks firing guns into the woods yesterday? Rat-tat-tat-tat.") And it endures the dangerous reality of homelessness.

That means facing the cold rain without a tarp, stumbling through the darkness for a place to sleep or dealing with unease whenever a stranger shows up. It can mean rape, robbery and beatings, which are rarely reported, according to park inhabitants.

"There are good people out here, there are bad people out here. Generally I don't think personalities change just because you're homeless," says Tony, 19, a park resident originally from Seattle. "There is greed, there are ulterior motives. People get hurt no matter where you are."

For some, commerce in the park revolves around the intermittent flow of strangers - black and white, male and female, a tattooed veteran and three pre-teens with a basketball - who walk in and ask for "weed" or "a bag" or "some nuggets."

One park inhabitant, a lookout, has been sitting at a picnic table eyeing potential customers as they stroll in from the park entrances. If the buyer looks safe enough, he'll fire off a question, "You holdin'?"

The dealer, meanwhile, has been reading a book at the same table and if he too feels the right mood, he'll give a quick nod of the head, face the customer and ask, "How much do you need?"

Sometimes the transaction is interrupted by cries of "six up," park lingo for the police. Other times, if the vibe isn't right, the people at the table will change the subject to camping equipment or some job they heard about in Portland or how they've run out of cigarettes. And the customer will shuffle away, empty-handed.

But this is a marijuana culture and there is always marijuana. It is passed around in glassware and pipes and joints throughout the day. Exhaled smoke drifts among sitting crowds in thick, pungent clouds, and after a while, it's just a lot of talking about life or giving advice or listening carefully to a nearby guitar.

`You'll always get some food'

Tony is stick skinny with wiry glasses that match. Talk about food and he's the first to react. Body stiffens, mouth opens, eyes search.

"You go looking for food when you need to, when you're hungry," he says, relaxing after a moment. "You don't worry about saving or anything like that. And if you go hungry for a little while, so be it. It ain't no big thing. I've been houseless for two years but this is America, man. You'll always get some food somehow."

As if on cue, a yell comes from across the park. A girl is cooking up a huge pan of macaroni and cheese over a portable camp stove to share with friends and dogs.

"Yo, man," he chuckles. "See?"

It's only during desperate or lazy times that park inhabitants head off to food banks, soup lines or teen feeds or beg for spare change.

Otherwise, there are plenty of ways to get food. You just have to know how.

The more adventurous dive into trash bins behind doughnut shops and come up brushing trash off cartons of day-old dried goods. In a nearby alley, a fellow named Andrew discovers a little round grill. "We're going to grub on some barbecue tonight, baby!" he whoops.

Some stoop to shoplifting. An older kid named Eric produces a large can of salmon from his jacket pocket. He invites a few others to the crude campfire he's constructed underneath a bridge, and the fish is quickly heated over an open flame in its own tin.

If all else fails, the barter system is alive and well. Half-used batteries, tape players dug from garbage cans, a sack of shiny stones, an antiquated, miniature television and a skateboard can be traded for food, or a better sleeping bag.

The denizens of Cowen Park don't like to talk about their pasts. They are well-guarded about histories and families and foster homes. There's just this mantra: "You are dealt a hand and now you must play."

Face what happens as it happens, they say. Find a bed, avoid a family, bum a cigarette, earn some money, read a book, smoke some weed, play the guitar, scratch a dog, fill the stomach, satisfy a need.

If none of those things, then just hang out and wait. That can take up much of the day, and it isn't so bad when the weather is warm and you have no place you need to be.

Information from Seattle Times staff reporter Tamyra Howser is included in this report.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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