Those who frequent the sidewalks of Capitol Hill may have noticed the absence of one tent that usually stands outside the apartment building on the southeast corner of Broadway East and East Denny Way. Or you may have seen and smelled the charred remains that have since been removed after a man set fire to the shelter on the night of Mar. 1. Witnesses claim they saw the arsonist, Kendrick Epps, light a shoebox on fire before using that to set fire to the tent with the occupant still inside. Passersby helped the occupant escape the flames where she received minor burns. Neither the status of the occupant’s health nor her whereabouts are currently known.
Houseless individuals often go ignored and unnamed, even by those who regularly pass them on the sidewalk. This may be due to guilt, or perhaps pedestrians think they could be no help. But not learning the names and faces of these individuals further perpetuates the notion that houseless people are different. That they don’t deserve the necessities that most of us take for granted. So often, houseless individuals are dismissed as empty shells of the people they once were. Not only is this inaccurate, but this distorted view can lead to someone’s identity being erased.
After learning about the events of Mar. 1, members of The Seattle Collegian staff realized that they knew the occupant of the shelter as Sue. By sharing our stories with one another, this previously unknown figure began to take shape, morphing into a human being with a love for Mexican Coca-Cola, a soft spot for pigeons, and a gentle soul. Sue has an identity. She, too, is a person with nuanced opinions, a complex personality, and a life story all her own.
Staff writer Haylee Jarrett met Sue in the summer of 2020. Jarrett describes working at an ice cream shop during the COVID-19 pandemic as difficult, but “one of the nice parts was meeting Sue,” she says. After her shop decided to stop selling bottled root beer and Mexican Coca-Cola, Jarrett found herself with an excess of free soda. That’s where an opportunity arose: “The details are fuzzy, but I offered a bottle to Sue, and from there we built a passing friendship. I talked to her about juice, cats, and just silly little things, even after the soda supplies ran out. I had to wave at her whenever I saw her and ask how she was doing,” Jarrett says. “Back then, whenever we had random conversations, I was fascinated by who she really was and how she got to where she is today. The Sue I know now has always been a kind, bubbly, wonderful person, and the way she lives her life never stopped her from being that.”
Staff writer JayAre Quezada used to run into Sue when they worked at a chocolate shop on East Pine Street. Sue would often come in, leaving her cart of belongings at the front door. “Her main reason for coming in was to ask for a cup of water,” Quezada says. “My co-workers and I wouldn’t hesitate, even offering her some coffee or hot chocolate.” While Sue normally sat outside the shop, quietly surveying her surroundings, Quezada praised the “gentle nature she had about her.”
Seattle Central English instructor, Johnny Horton, remembers encountering Sue in March of 2022. Walking home on Broadway, Horton recalls how he “saw her standing beside two baby strollers stacked high with stuff. Standing on a suitcase on top of one of the stroller’s, a pigeon seemed to commune with her.”
“I was taken by the scene because it spoke to connection in a time and place that seemed hopelessly frayed by the pandemic and all the other events of the past few years,” Horton says. Moved to capture the moment, he took a photo of Sue on his phone. “She immediately voiced her disapproval,” he says, “asking me how I’d like it if she followed me home and took my picture.”
“I realized that Sue had put her finger on the difference between myself and her,” he explains. “I had a home beyond the sidewalk that I could go to for comfort and solitude. I had a fireplace and a full bar. I had a dog. After a hard day I could spend the evening sipping my martini as the dog drowsed by the orange glow of the fire,” Horton discloses. “I wasn’t vulnerable to passersby who wanted to put a phone in my face and take my picture. I wasn’t threatened by others on the street who may decide for whatever reason to light my makeshift shelter on fire. I understood that our relationship that afternoon on the sidewalk illustrated a power dynamic that all of us participate in but few of us realize.”
For Seattle residents, the houseless crisis is a noticeably severe situation. Horton hits a point which escapes many residents. Those of us with homes to go back to for privacy, safety, and comfort automatically have the upper hand on those who don’t. They can’t go home and “freshen up” before a night out. They can’t wrap themselves in a blanket and watch Netflix for hours when they’re depressed. They can’t perform make-believe concerts in the shower or know the calming solitude of being completely alone. They can’t be certain that they won’t be attacked, harmed, or harassed at any given time on any given day. “For all the ‘Seattle is dying’ stories in local media that put crime and homelessness hand-in-hand,” Horton says, “I can’t help but think that homeless individuals are much more vulnerable than anyone who lives in a house.”
Editor-at-large Juan Miguel Jocom never knew Sue personally. However, he would often see her feeding pigeons near Seattle Central’s parking lot, close to where she usually set up her tent. “My roommates and I refer to her as lola,” he says, “the Filipino word for grandmother.”
Walking to dinner around 11 p.m. on the night of March 2, Jocom witnessed the aftermath of Sue’s attack. “I noticed firetrucks and ambulances surrounding the street,” he recalls. “On my way back I decided to investigate what happened, and I was shocked to see that Sue’s tent was now reduced to a pile of smoking debris.” Jocom felt prompted to get footage, “I was very confused as to why anyone would do this. I showed the video I took to my friends and they all had the same reaction: anger and confusion.”
With the homeless seen as “less than” by the public and constantly subjected to the stresses of living on the streets, it’s not hard to see the divide between those with houses and those without. It’s a class divide, but it’s also a mental divide. Can you imagine the nonstop anxiety, worry, and fatigue that comes without having a safe space to recede to?
The tragedy of Sue’s attack highlights the necessity of compassion for houseless individuals. We have no idea what another person has gone through in their life or what they are going through in that exact moment. No one deserves to be in a constant state of hypervigilance. No one deserves to have their belongings burnt to ash. We owe it to them to show empathy, kindness, and assistance when we can. The more we dehumanize houseless individuals, the more susceptible we are to inhumane action. Dehumanizing them in turn dehumanizes us. We need to make an effort to show them the decency that any person deserves, regardless of their living situation. Our collective humanity depends on it.
Mo is an alumni of Seattle Central and is currently attending the University of Washington with aspirations to pursue a career in journalism and communications while also delving into anthropology. She aims to explore the world and reveal the stories it wishes to tell through her writing and photography/videography. When she’s not captivated by her journalistic pursuits, she loves to go on adventures, create, watch films, and surf.