By Erica C. Barnett
Olga Park, a small swatch of green space near Ravenna and Cowen Parks in Northeast Seattle, has been the site of a fairly small but disruptive encampment for about a year. Neighbors in nearby apartments and houses have complained frequently to the city about noise, drug use, and hostile treatment from the people living there—typical points of friction between housed and homeless people in densely populated residential areas.
But many in the neighborhood have also worked to find alternatives that wouldn’t simply displace the encampment residents, meeting with outreach workers from REACH who have developed relationships with people living in the park to discuss options that would keep them in the neighborhood. “My ideal approach so far, which we’ve been advocating with the city to do, is something like the JustCARE program, where people move into hotels on a voluntary basis,” Teresa Barker, from the Ravenna-Cowen Community Alliance, said.
Those conversations came to an abrupt halt last week, when the city decided to sweep the encampment after a man who lived elsewhere shot and killed an encampment resident. Those living in the park got about two days’ notice; two accepted referrals to the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown, and one got a referral to Otto’s Place, a 100-bed shelter in Pioneer Square. The rest moved elsewhere, leaving behind tents, property, and trash for the Parks Department to haul away.
The tiny number of people who “accepted” shelter referrals in the days leading up to the sweep “just goes to show that the person-centered, relationship building approach works better than the kneejerk response,” Maureen Ewing, director of the University Heights Center, said.
Neighbors who’ve been asking the city to address the encampment for months were relieved that it’s gone, but said they also understand that the city isn’t solving anything by moving traumatized people from place to place. The tiny number of people who “accepted” shelter referrals in the days leading up to the sweep “just goes to show that the person-centered, relationship building approach works better than the kneejerk response,” Maureen Ewing, director of the nearby University Heights Center, said. “It’s unfortunate that we wait to drop the hammer and force people out when they already traumatized by the murder.”
Both Ewing and Barker said the city needed to do something about the encampment; both pointed out numerous examples of aggressive behavior and dangerous incidents, including a large fire, screaming fights, verbal threats, and a man who climbed 40 feet up a tree and wouldn’t come down. But they both said that most of the neighborhood wanted the city to provide alternatives that would actually work for the encampment residents, rather than a standard-issue sweep, in which people are offered whatever shelter happens to be available at the moment.
“I think individuals who are living in homes are conflicted, because they care about the well-being of the people living there but they also care about the impact of the impact of the people living there on the neighborhood.” —Theresa Barker, Ravenna-Cowen Community Alliance.
“I think individuals who are living in homes are conflicted, because they care about the well-being of the people living there but they also care about the impact of the impact of the people living there on the neighborhood,” Barker said. “The challenge is that in a few weeks we’ll see them back—if not at that site, they may be down the street or at the playground or playfield, with even more defense mechanisms because of the trauma that just happened to them.”
Residents and outreach workers told PubliCola that most of the residents wanted to move together to a single site, such as a nearby tiny house village the Low-Income Housing Institute plans to open later this summer called Rosie’s Village. LIHI director Sharon Lee said that “obviously, we very much would like to house people who are near the village,” such as those in Olga Park, but added that the city’s rules require most tiny house village referrals to come from the Human Services Department’s HOPE Team, which controls referrals to shelter and services from “priority” encampments that are scheduled for removal.
Ultimately, the problem with moving people from encampments en masse is that there aren’t enough places for them to go, and that many of the places that are available aren’t appropriate for every person.
People with severe mental illness, addiction, and distrust of the city and service providers are unlikely to “accept” a referral into any kind of shelter that comes as a prelude to an encampment sweep, especially if they’ve been homeless a long time and have lost hope that the system can actually help them.
People who might be amenable to certain kinds of shelter, such as a tiny house in the area where they live, may balk if all they’re offered is a bed in a congregate shelter across town.
And those who’ve heard through the rumor mill that the city is offering spots in hotel rooms with a fast track to housing might hold out for that option, especially if they believe there are plenty of rooms available, rather than going to a place like the Navigation Center or the Salvation Army’s huge congregate shelter in SoDo.
This is not a hypothetical problem: Outreach workers say that when the city has posted notices of impending encampment removals, unsheltered people have picked up and moved to those encampments, in the hope of getting one of the coveted hotel rooms reserved exclusively for people at those sites. You can hardly blame them: With rare exceptions, the only way to get a hotel room is to live at an encampment that’s on the city’s priority list in a given week. Scarcity leads to creativity.
And sweeps lead to displacement, as people uprooted from old encampments form new ones. Immediately after last week’s sweep, people who lived at Olga Park redistributed themselves throughout the neighborhood, moving their tents to Cowen Park and University Heights Center, among other locations.
Ewing said she noticed the new residents right away. “We went from one or two people sleeping in the park to about six on the day of” the removal, she said. “We notice this with any sweep that happens near the Ave—you have more people sleeping on the Ave and more people sleeping on our property. It was clearly related.”
The lesson for the city should be that getting unsheltered people out of parks requires concerted effort by outreach workers and service providers to figure out what kind of services and shelter they actually need. Instead, they’re engaged in magical thinking, insisting that the same old sweeps will lead to a different, better result.