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'Shelters are dangerous places:' homeless man refuses to leave the streets

Charles Knight is that guy you see pushing a shopping cart with all his belongings up and down the streets of Seattle. Having grown up in King County, he’s ashamed to say how he became homeless more than five years ago. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE -- Charles Knight is that guy you see pushing a shopping cart with all his belongings up and down the streets of Seattle. Having grown up in King County, he’s ashamed to say how he became homeless more than five years ago.

He drinks a bit, smokes only cigarettes, and doesn’t have a job. He also doesn’t want the kind of help the city is offering him.

“I have some tents, tarps – I got a backpack, suitcases,” said Knight, showing off his cart. “I have a routine, at seven o’clock at night we can set the tents up, seven in the morning we have to be up and out, or we are going to get swept.”

This year’s ‘One Night Count’ estimated there are nearly 4,500 unsheltered homeless people within the City of Seattle. The City is currently housing 3,000 people that were formally homeless, but space is still very limited.

Knight symbolizes a group of homeless street campers who know the city’s self-imposed limitations allow him to stay on the streets without fear of arrest. He’s also an example of why some who are offered shelter refuse to take it.

KOMO News first met Knight nearly two years ago in an area in SODO nicknamed ‘the field.’ KOMO News was covering a story about why homeless camps were becoming junk yards. Knight taught the station a new term.

“It’s a thing people called ‘diggle,’” he said back in January 2017. Diggle is collecting stuff, anything that can be sold, swapped or traded.”

He politely left out the word steal. He says that’s how many survive.

Two months later, KOMO News saw him again after a fire nearly burned down his tent. His biggest fears of living on the street are theft and being burned while sleeping.

“I ran over there and I realized it was the neighbors,” he said back in 2017. “It’s not the first time, it’s not going to be last, it’s a wakeup call.”

A month after the fire, he was told to leave ‘the field’ when a tanker overturned nearby on I-5 and was going to explode. Eventually, he and 70 other campers were forced to leave the field a month later after rats, garbage, and filth got to be too much for the city to endure.

He wound up under the Spokane Street bridge, but a RV caught fire nearly, burning down the camp. The city cleared the camp and Knight was on the move again.

KOMO News found him nearly a year later, staying in a small tent city in Pioneer Square. He accepted city sponsored housing, but claims he was ‘attacked,’ then a fight followed and he was kicked out of his apartment.

The next day, he was five blocks away in a tent underneath the Yesler Street overpass. The small camp of five people was being removed from the city’s Navigation Team because the tents were an obstruction. City protocols allows for this kind of removal, which is deemed a safety hazard, and doesn’t have to give the campers a 72-hour notice.

By now he estimates he’s been forcefully removed or swept nearly a dozen times. This time he said he reluctantly would accept shelter, but it didn’t last long.

“In terms of the conditions of the mold and the bathroom, it’s horrible,” Night said of the Main Shelter operated by the Downtown Emergency Services Center on Third Avenue across from the King County Courthouse.

Like so many living on the street, he’s rejected shelter.

“The shelters are dangerous places no matter how you put it,” Knight said.

If the city had anything to offer, it would be a job, housing comes second, Knight said.

“Gardening, cleaning, I can do that.”

But, he says what keeps him on the street is the people who give him money, food, and a blessing, along with the city’s very tolerate policy toward street camping.

“With my cart, I get to bring my home where I want it to be,” he said.

He says he will stay on the street until he simply can’t be allowed to do so.

“I miss my place, I miss it, but I know something better is going to come along.”

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