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Sunday, October 19, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Crime in homeless camp sparks cleanup

Seattle Times staff reporter

Franz Dyduch considered the homeless camped in a greenbelt around his Beacon Hill house to be his neighbors. He fed their dogs and drank beer around their campfires.

In January, however, the relationship began to sour. His home was burglarized weekly. When his daughter admonished campers for victimizing an old man, she was pelted with rocks, and one morning she found human feces outside her dad's door.

Monika Dyduch attributes her 84-year-old father's fatal heart attack in April to the stress caused by "the new breed" of neighbors that have taken over "The Jungle."

"We've had homeless people who've been delightful neighbors for years, but they're different from the new breed, the trash that took over," she said.

The densely wooded strip at the base of Beacon Hill, known as The Jungle, has inspired controversy and crackdowns for a decade. But a rising volume of complaints from the Dyduchs and others this year has prompted the city of Seattle to launch one of its most coordinated efforts yet to clean up the homeless camp.

About a month ago, residents of The Jungle, estimated to be 80 or more, were kicked out with 24 hours' notice. More than 10 tons of what the city called garbage — tents, fetid food and even a smashed ATM machine — was swept up as state crews mowed acres of underbrush to expose encampments.

Jordan Royer, a neighborhood liaison for the city, says this cleanup, unlike previous attempts that lost steam, has staying power. He helped persuade the state Department of Transportation to cut new roads in The Jungle, allowing police cruisers to patrol the area for the first time, and the city Parks Department has pledged quarterly brush clearing.

A similar crackdown in 1998 provoked noisy protests, which led to the creation of three tent cities in Seattle.

But last month's cleanup caught Seattle's vocal homeless-advocacy community by surprise. As word spread slowly on the streets, homeless advocates like the Rev. Rick Reynolds, director of Operation Nightwatch, see it as evidence of a "meaner mood" toward the homeless in tolerant Seattle.

"I'd like to know where they're supposed to go," said Reynolds, who organized Friday's one-night count of homeless people sleeping outside. "They're not going to be able to melt into the shelter system, and most don't have resources to rent an apartment. The pattern in big cities is who can be the meanest, and shove them onto someplace else."

That's not the city's intent, said Royer, son of former Seattle mayor Charlie Royer. The hobo camp had become overrun with drug dealers and prostitutes who plagued the Beacon Hill neighborhood, requiring city action, he said. "This is not a campaign on the homeless," said Royer. "We wouldn't even be in here if they treated the environment and the neighbors with respect."

A park for dogs or bikes?

The Jungle is a narrow swath of surprisingly clean urban forest bisected by Beacon Avenue South as it climbs up from Safeco Field. It is an easy walk from downtown's south end, with towering, vine-covered maples buffering the rumble of Interstate 5 below.

If the cleanup continues to hold, the city may begin taking proposals for an alternate use, said Royer. A huge off-leash park and mountain-biking trails have been mentioned thus far.

Before the cleanup in early September about 25 campsites were connected by worn footpaths among blackberry brambles. Last week, just a handful of campers had returned to the section north of Beacon Avenue South.

Joe Doney lived in The Jungle in the mid-1990s, during another city cleanup. He found a cohesive community of people who took shifts guarding each other's belongings.

"If they're moving them out, they're swatting the beehive," said Doney, who now lives in and runs a downtown shelter. "They're scattering people all over, without the safety of numbers. They're going to find another place to go."

Jim McBride, the state Department of Transportation's King County maintenance superintendent, thinks he knows where the rest went. Complaints from neighborhoods abutting I-5 green space to the north are on the rise, including the foot of Capitol Hill and University District.

"It's like pushing on a balloon," said McBride, who estimates that the DOT spends about $9,500 cleaning up debris from the homeless in Seattle. "We're not so bold as to think we're going to remove the transient population. We're just responding to the citizen concerns."

But his crews, too, say The Jungle has grown unsafe, increasingly needing police help to do routine maintenance.

Burglaries fuel complaints

As Franz Dyduch began fending off his new neighbors, others on Beacon Hill reported seeing sex acts at bus stops, needles on school playgrounds and open drug dealing.

The anger peaked in August with a series of burglaries. One resident came home to see a burglar packing garment bags in her living room, and the two fought before the burglar fled into The Jungle. Outraged neighbors descended on The Jungle with baseball bats but left without fighting.

In early September, prosecutors charged Shirley K. Tomlinson, 38, with at least one of the burglaries, and police hope to link her to more.

As police began emphasizing patrols on Beacon Hill, detectives earlier this month seized 244 grams of heroin a few blocks from Beacon Hill Elementary School from dealers they suspect live in The Jungle.

The more vigorous policing came too late for Shannon Mills. She lost birth certificates, passports and checkbooks in a burglary, and soon joined a neighborhood group that organized citizen patrols around The Jungle. The group has routinely reported suspected drug deals and prostitution.

Worried about being the victim of identity theft, she makes the distinction between The Jungle's homeless and those using it as a hide-out.

"If people in there were just homeless, they're not the ones breaking into our houses and stealing our stuff," said Mills. "It's the criminal element in The Jungle that's ruining it for them."

Because The Jungle is state- and city-owned land, police could issue trespassing citations to homeless campers. Police plan to patrol the cleaned-up area on horses and bicycles, and, when the new roads are graveled, with police cruisers.

But the police are stretched too thin to issue reams of trespass violations in the hobo camp, said Seattle police Sgt. Cindy Granard.

"There's home-invasion burglaries in the neighborhood," she said. "That's the type of crime we go after. Trespass is way, way down the list."

Politically charged issue

For homeless advocates and city officials alike, the crackdown in The Jungle dredges up the politically charged issue of homeless shelters.

Shelters are routinely full in the winter, although the city and county both have extra cots available on particularly brutal nights. But advocates for the homeless estimate about 8,000 people in King County have no shelter each night.

A report released Friday by the Seattle/King County Coalition for the Homeless counted 1,734 people on the streets in the greater Seattle area between 2 and 5:30 a.m. Friday. The figure represents an 11 percent decline from the 1,951 people counted in one night in 2002. The counts don't include people staying at shelters.

Royer says the cleanup walks a fine line between responding to neighborhood concerns, and making the homeless problem worse.

"When we talk to people, they say, 'I don't want to harass the homeless, just to get the crime problem cleaned up,' " he said. The crackdown, he said, could actually help the most physically or mentally vulnerable Jungle campers, who become prey for more predatory residents of the hobo camp.

Monika Dyduch, whose complaints helped launch the crackdown, is convinced the cleanups have helped. "Our homeless neighbors were being harassed and chased out," she said.

She remembers walking The Jungle as a child, after her family moved to the 11th Avenue South home in 1957. The cleaned-up Jungle now brings back childhood memories.

"It's beautiful and peaceful," she said. "It's something that should be shared by the whole city."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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