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For some without a home, the airport is a source of shelter

caption: De Chung sits with his bags and belongings near a luggage carousel at SeaTac Airport on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.
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De Chung sits with his bags and belongings near a luggage carousel at SeaTac Airport on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.
KUOW Photo/Casey Martin

The homelessness crisis in Seattle is often highly visible, with many people living in camps, tents, and RVs. But there are those who are trying to stay invisible, often hiding in the jam of travel at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The Port of Seattle says it's trying to direct these people into temporary shelter but there are few places in the area for people to go.

A cold wind howls down the tunnel that leads from the light rail station to the airport. That’s where Miguel Mendoza is walking as travelers rush by to catch a flight. On a chilly night like this one, Mendoza said he does what he can to stay warm.

“Sometimes I spend nights walking, all night buses,” Mendoza said with a backpack slung over one shoulder. “You know, just traveling on buses, trains.”

On that night, he took light rail to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport where he planned to find a bench and get some sleep. Mendoza said he has slept at the airport a few times before.

“Not often, no, because the police...they see you're sleeping or whatever, they kick you out,” he said.

Police and having to sleep in a chair are two reasons why Mendoza doesn’t really like to come to the airport — but he has few other options.

At one point, he was staying at a shelter in Seattle. That was a temporary severe weather shelter that only opened during the recent cold snap.

“They opened a few shelters for the bad weather, like it was snowing, but it was for a week, less than a week, and then it is very hard to get a shelter, very hard,” Mendoza said.

A year ago, Mendoza was working as a chef and living at a motel close to the airport. But then he got really sick and lost his job, he said. At the airport, he still had a cough and wasn’t sure if it was a cold, the flu, or Covid.

The night Mendoza spoke to KUOW, he found a bench in baggage claim, away from the luggage carousels and near a wall. He sat in one chair and kept a close eye on his backpack next to him.

Asked if he feels unsafe at the airport, Mendoza said: “Yes, well I mean, like, you don’t know what’s going to happen. If I had money, I’d go to a motel and feel safe there. But this is like public.”

One reason Mendoza and others seek shelter at the airport is that it’s easy to blend in. On this night, the baggage claim area was packed with exhausted looking people carrying lots of bags. Most were travelers waiting on delayed flights. But some were people like De Chung, who sleeps at the airport nearly every night.

“I don’t know where to go," Chung said. "Outside is too cold and there’s rain.”

He tries to keep a low profile and not get thrown out. He said he gets along with airport security because they don’t ask him to leave but Port of Seattle police do.

Mendoza and Chung are among dozens of homeless people who come to the airport to get out of the cold. The exact figure isn’t clear, as the Port says it does not, “have the ability to keep accurate statistics on the number of people experiencing homelessness.” A spokesperson said they hope to have more data in the coming months.

An airport may feel like a public space but Port of Seattle police officer Michelle Bregel said in March that unsheltered people are coming in and, “not really realizing that they’re trespassing on private property.”

Last year, the Port brought Bregel on as a full-time crisis coordinator. In March, she said her job was to “help [unsheltered people] connect to family, give them resources on finding shelters, get them connected to behavioral health providers, or the local hospital if necessary.”

Nearly everyone who was at the airport the same night as Chung and Mendoza said they hadn’t been referred to a shelter before, only led to the door by Port police.

Bregel said the Port is concerned about the safety of travelers. This past December, TSA said an unhoused person at SeaTac got past a security checkpoint and into an employee area. The incident caused delays during peak holiday travel.

Another person finding shelter that night was Ben Hall, who was smoking a cigarette outside the international terminal. Hall said there’s not much to do when sleeping overnight at the airport.

“It’s boring and it's hard to lay down and close your eyes,” he said while watching cars drive away.

Hall added that he doesn’t particularly have a favorite spot to sleep.

“Wherever,” he said. “Hide in a hole somewhere.”

Throughout the night, Hall moved around the departure and arrival areas quite a bit. First sleeping in a chair, then on the floor behind a vending machine.

He said he has run into Bregel a few times.

“There's one lady here who's a cop, who's always trying to hook me up and help me out and I'm gonna let her,” Hall said, putting out his cigarette. “I'm gonna let her do it.”

Hall said after months of cajoling from Bregel, he would head to Veterans’ Affairs the next day to hopefully set up housing.

He said as a veteran, he feels lucky to have that option. A lot of people are on long wait lists for temporary shelter, not even long-term housing. That area surrounding the airport has very few options for people seeking shelter. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority database shows there are no shelters available in SeaTac or Tukwila for people to go.

Even Bregel said it’s difficult to know where to direct people.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the services that are available in the area are struggling due to low staffing,” she said.

Bregel said she interacts with a few regulars who come back night after night, but most people just pass through. It’s hard to reach every person who comes through a busy airport.

The Port says it is taking steps to bolster its SEA Cares program and add more people like Bregel to help unsheltered people once they leave the airport. The agency hired a mental health responder in November and added more crisis intervention training for Port officers.

Many people sleeping at the airport said they don’t need this kind of intervention, however.

Late into the night, Miguel Mendoza’s eyes looked tired but he wouldn’t fall asleep until midnight, when the building quieted down.

Mendoza said he doesn’t need a crisis coordinator or more police. He said he needs to get healthy so he can get a chef job again and afford to move back into a motel. The next day, he was headed to an interview at a restaurant.

“I just want to feel better for tomorrow, I hope. And this time tomorrow, I do my thing, "he said.

He sat back in his chair and stifled a cough as he watched travelers shuffle by.

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