March 6, 2019
Last August, a Ballard woman named Bevin Armstrong, who died last year while living in a van, was memorialized in a solemn ceremony by a local homeless activist group. The group, know as Women In Black, is connected to a non-profit organization that contracts with the City of Seattle to run a network of homeless shelters and organized shanty towns it calls “tiny house village” around the city. In addition to advocating for more shelters, both these groups advocate for people to be allowed to live in cars and RVs, in tent camps, and under bridges indefinitely, rather than being “forced” into shelters or other transitional housing. That doesn’t seem to make sense, until you look closely at the group’s business model.
If you follow this blog, you’ll recognize the group I’m talking about. It’s SHARE. You’ll also know that this outfit has an astonishing level of influence at City Hall. And that it’s also corrupt. SHARE is good at convincing its friends on the City Council to dole out money for it to maintain a few hundred shelter beds at its network of shack villages and church shelters. But they’re not so good at complying with City requirements to provide audited financial statements. (If you’re not familiar with this story, you might want to read this article first.)
SHARE promotes itself to the City by holding these memorials and also by staging angry demonstrations and protest tent camps at City Hall, using homeless people whom the group claims are there by choice. SHARE also cultivates good relations with the media and makes itself available to supply a quote on homelessness or a soft-focus picture of a homeless waif whenever some busy reporter needs one. Take this story from the Wall Street Journal, for example. Or this piece from the online journal Crosscut. There are hundreds of such SHARE-friendly pieces online. Collectively, these articles make it look like SHARE is doing something to tackle a crisis that government can’t. That gives SHARE leverage at City Hall during budget season, but it also helps the group in another way. Homeless people outside Seattle read about SHARE’s wonderfully “democratically self-managed” shelter network and they come here thinking that SHARE will find a place for them, too. But for every person SHARE finds a bed or tent for, they attract several more for whom there’s no bed, and these people end up living on the street or in vehicles, like Bevin Armstrong. And thus the homeless crisis gets worse in Seattle
You might think a net gain in homeless people over time would create a PR problem for the group, but the opposite is true. SHARE simply points to the new arrivals as evidence of an expanding nationwide crisis, and they demand even more money to build even more shacks and tent camps… which will then turn draw still more homeless people to the city, perpetuating the cycle and guaranteeing that SHARE will stay in business forever. See how that works?
None of SHARE’s facilities have drug treatment programs attached – indeed some of them allow active drug users to live there – and such case management services as they do have are scant. The group doesn’t offer a pathway to housing; instead their camps and church shelters are essentially warehouses for chronically homeless transients and drug addicts, and the folks who pass through them often exit right back to the street or to other homeless camps. Many of SHARE’s shelter residents – or participants as the group calls them – have been homeless for years, in fact, and without some intensive mentoring and case management services, they’ll stay that way. And that’s all right with SHARE. They don’t claim to be about getting homeless people into housing. They’re about “ending oppression” of homeless people, or so they say, and that oppression includes telling people they can’t camp on public land or forcing them to get into shelters when they’d prefer to live on the street. Naturally, this makes SHARE quite popular with a certain element of the homeless population, and those are the ones most likely to show up here in response to SHARE’s PR blitz.
Of course SHARE doesn’t want the City “forcing” any of the people living on the street into legitimate transitional housing or treatment programs, because then these folks would be out of sight and lost as a marketing tool. So instead, they say homeless people should be left to live on on the street or, like Bevin Armstrong, in vehicles, until there are enough SHARE shelters to house all of them. Which will be never of course.
To assure that people would be allowed to live outside unmolested, SHARE joined forces with American Civil Liberties Union and a host of social justice activists to cause a policy shift at City Hall. Police have been told not to pester homeless people, even when they are doing great harm to themselves or others. Which brings us back to the tragic case of Bevin Armstrong.
Armstrong moved to Seattle in 2014 with a mental disability, no friends, meager resources, and a budding drug addiction. She lived in a Ballard apartment for a few months but she eventually gave that up when her funds ran out and took up with an older man named Richard Rektenwald (who called himself the President of Ballard) who had by then already been living out of a van in the vicinity of the Ballard Commons Park for years. Recktenwald is a drug user and small-time dealer who was apparently pimping Armstrong for her government benefits and abused her sexually and psychologically. As is typical in this kind of relationship, Recktenwald controlled Armstrong’s money and her movements, and witnesses I’ve talked to say he rarely let her out of his sight. Rektenwald described himself as Armstrong’s “caregiver” – but he’s not licensed to provide any kind of health care or services, and his actual treatment of Armstrong, as described by many witnesses, gives the lie to his cynical claim.
Armstrong overdosed or otherwise injured herself a number of times while under Rektenwald’s “care” and had been to the hospital frequently for both ODs and seizures. The couple had been contacted, separately, at least once by the police in connection to a domestic violence complaint. In that case, Armstrong told police that Rektenwald had beaten her and locked her out of his van in the middle of winter because she wouldn’t perform oral sex on him. Although police wanted to move forward and build a case against Rektenwald, the matter was dropped because Armstrong wouldn’t follow through and testify. No domestic violence advocate was called in.
Cops in the area knew the couple well because Armstrong was a “frequent flyer” with local emergency medics. They also knew she was languishing and they wanted to help her, but they felt they couldn’t take action to get her indoors and away from the man who was abusing her, because that would have been harassing homeless people, which was against City policy, as created by SHARE. All people really need in this life is shelter and to be left alone, according to SHARE, and Armstrong had shelter because she was living in the van with Rektenwald. She told the police she didn’t want any help, so it was all good in the City’s eyes.
An autopsy was performed after Armstrong’s death, and although we don’t have the autopsy report in our hands, it’s a good bet that the immediate cause of death was either overdose or organ failure. By the time Rektenwald was through with her, Armstrong was a wreck. Sadly, she looked nothing like the photos I’ve included here, and that’s a good thing, because even though I never knew her, this is how I want to “remember” her: a beautiful young woman full of life and hope. And not in Seattle.
SHARE supporters have placed hundreds of these bronze memorial leaves at high-visibility spots around town. The one for Bevin Armstrong is alongside several others at the Ballard Commons, not too far from where she actually passed. Although the leaves should be sacred, SHARE uses them in the same way it used the homeless individuals they represent. As just another a hustle.
For Bevin and Lois.
Do you appreciate honest journalism? Then reward it.