Camp Unity moves back into Woodinville, adapts to virus

Camp Unity resident George Turner wears a reflective vest and mask during his shift of security duty at the site near Northshore United Church of Christ in Woodinville. Photos by Laura Guido

Camp Unity’s regular move between churches took a lot longer than usual as it set up at its new host, Northshore United Church of Christ, this month.

Every three to four months the nonprofit-run encampment changes sites around the Eastside, but this time its residents didn't have the typically added support from 10 or more volunteers, according to board Vice President Karl Brackmann.

Amid the many changes that have resulted from the novel coronavirus outbreak was the decision to separate volunteers from the camp’s residents, Brackmann said.

Individuals experiencing homelessness are often older adults and likely to have underlying medical conditions, which can mean they’re at higher risk for contracting COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have to be extremely cautious,” said Daniel Cottrell, a resident and camp supervisor.

He’s been living with Camp Unity for the past five years after suddenly skyrocketed rent forced him out of his housing in Bothell, he said.

The 18 residents currently living there operate as one household, Brackmann said, and don’t necessarily wear masks while at home, but are given face coverings for when they leave the camp.

The camp has a shower trailer, which is hooked up to the host church’s water and septic, and also provides a hand-washing station.

Since the outbreak, hand sanitizer has also been placed throughout the camp and more cleaning now takes place, Brackmann said.

When board members visit for weekly general camp meetings, masks are worn and social distance is maintained, he said.

Volunteers are still able to provide nightly dinners, but they now leave the food at a tent on the outskirts of the encampment and residents come out to pick it up.

Camp Unity moves back into Woodinville, adapts to virus

Camp Unity resident Daniel Cottrell masks up whenever he leaves the site.

After living for such a long time with the camp, Cottrell knows the impact a highly contagious disease can have in such a setting.

“I have personally seen the flu go through this camp," he said, “and it’s like watching tinder burn.”

When Gov. Jay Inslee put in place the state “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, Camp Unity ceased accepting new residents, according to Brackman. Now that King County has moved into phase two of re-opening, the camp has begun to allow new people to live within its boundaries.

In addition to the normal background check, which ensures no one with an outstanding warrant or sex offender status can join the camp, there are now additional screening questions recommended by the CDC for COVID-19 symptoms.

The outdoor setting with individuals staying in their own tents may help protect residents, with most infectious disease experts saying that transmission is much less likely outside. Each member of the camp also sleeps in a separate tent, which allows for social distancing.

However, come winter, the outdoor setting may not be considered as positive, Cottrell noted. One aspect of the camp hasn’t changed. The main goal is for residents to find permanent housing.

“We want to live like human beings again,” he said.

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