In the late 1990s, Gary Burns had a thriving career in print advertising. Unfortunately, he worked for a company that wasn’t interested in adapting to the Internet and social media.
Around the same time, he started having knee problems that resulted in three surgeries.
The company struggled, and Burns was laid off. He went through a long period of unemployment. His insurance ran out. He ended up homeless.
Now, he’s developed a business model for digital advertising software and incorporated his own business, and hopes to turn that into a full-time job. But in the meantime, he fills another important role. Burns is the acting camp supervisor for Camp Unity, a temporary homeless encampment that’s currently stationed at Woodinville Unitarian Universalist Church.
Although some neighbors worry the residents of Camp Unity have drug or alcohol addictions, Burns said the opposite is usually true. Many campers, like Burns himself, “were just unemployed too long.”
“Most of these people, most of us, have fallen through the cracks because we’re not former drug addicts or alcoholics, so we can’t get into the state programs available for them,” he explained. “If we don’t have long-term mental or physical disabilities, we can’t get into the state programs, so there’s really nothing out there for us.”
Camp Unity formed 15 months ago, splitting off from another homeless encampment, SHARE/WHEEL, that wasn’t willing to perform frequent background checks on its members.
Camp Unity has a permit to host 100 adults, but right now, it has about 60. The camp, which is in the process of becoming a nonprofit organization, has been set up at Woodinville Unitarian Universalist Church since November.
Campers get an 8x8 space to call their own (or an 8x12 space for couples), where some people build more permanent shelters with tarps and metal poles.
The camp shares other amenities. There’s an office tent with phones and computers, a used clothing bank and a kitchen tent with a microwave, refrigerator and freezer.
“We have a Little Caesar’s that gives us pizza twice a week. Top Pot brings in more donuts than we can eat,” Burns said. “And then we get things like the Knights of Columbus, the various fraternity groups, if they have catered events and there’s food left over, we’re the people they look to to bring them to.”
For entertainment, there’s a TV tent with a heater and a flat-screen TV to watch local channels, and a computer tent where campers can work on job applications or keep in touch with friends and family.
Camp Unity also provides port-a-potties and a mobile shower, built by residents, where campers can clean up for a job interview, doctor’s appointment, or just to feel good, Burns said. The camp gets electricity and water from the church, but pays for the port-a-potties and waste management itself.
There’s no limit how long people can stay at Camp Unity, but the average is three to four months, Burns said. Camp Unity tries to connect residents with services that will help them find jobs. About 30 campers have moved out after finding jobs or reuniting with family.
Reverend Lois Van Leer, pastor at Woodinville Unitarian Universalist Church, said this is the fifth time the church has hosted a homeless encampment. She’s grateful to the campers for doing volunteer work around the church — they helped build a pulpit, pressure washed the sidewalks and escort churchgoers from the parking lot.
Burns also said the campers are happy to volunteer in the community or do work for hire.
For example, when Camp Unity was in Kirkland, several campers spent days cleaning up the yard of an older woman who couldn’t maintain it.
Many campers have carpentry, electrical, plumbing and roofing skills. They’ve been hired for off jobs such as cleaning roofs and repairing gutters, Burns said.
“We have very capable people here, and they pay them fair wages,” Burns said. “... It’s great when you’ve gone a while and you’re stagnant, nothing’s happening, you’re getting frustrated, job interviews aren’t working out, and suddenly somebody calls and you get to go out and do a couple days’ work, and the people appreciate it, and you walk back with real money in your pocket. It can be a huge help in rebuilding people’s self-esteem — not to mention financially.”
Although the campers are willing to give back to the community, not everyone is happy with their presence. Shelly Foltz, who works in the bakery of the Cottage Lake Safeway near the church, said “theft at Safeway has gone up exponentially” because people, who she believes come from the camp, are stealing and “eating their way through the store.”
Steven Gonzalez, assistant manager at Safeway, confirmed the store has seen an increase in thefts, but declined to confirm how much has been stolen or what the store is doing to stop it.
“We’re having more of a keen eye,” he said. “Our awareness is heightened.”
Foltz said she wants to help the people who are stealing, but she’s not sure how.
“My hope would be that everybody would be taken care of, but that’s not the case. It’s sad,” she said.
Burns said he’s aware of the problem, but the thieves aren’t from Camp Unity — they’re a group of transient people who live in the woods behind Cottage Lake Park.
Camp Unity has stricter rules about background checks than other homeless camps.
When campers first move in, the have to show a current ID, and the camp does a warrant check and sex offender check, Burns said. Sex offender checks are usually repeated once a month, depending on the municipality’s requirements.
In the camp’s four months at this location, Burns said, they’ve only had to call police once, when a man drank too much and became resistant. The camp leaders called police to avoid a physical confrontation.
“I always feel much safer when they’re in residence, quite frankly,” Van Leer said. She hasn’t heard about any complaints or safety issues about the campers, adding, “I wonder if it’s the actual campers or people who’ve been turned away from the camp.”
How to get involved:
• Camp Unity is looking for a new site to set up camp, either temporarily or permanently. They need a space with several acres, ideally close to buses and stores.
• Interested in hiring workers from Camp Unity? Call the camp phone, (425) 652-9170, or visit campunityeastside.org.
• Want to donate building supplies or provide a hot meal for the campers? Find out more about what they need at campunityeastside.org.