By Erica C. Barnett
At a press conference a few hundred yards from an encampment in Woodland Park on Thursday morning, mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell said that if elected, he would implement the key elements of Charter Amendment 29—the “Compassion Seattle” ballot measure. A King County Superior Court judge tossed the initiative last week, agreeing with opponents that things like budgets and land use policy are outside the scope of local ballot measures, but the campaign appealed to the state court of appeals, whose ruling could come tomorrow.
Harrell’s “Homelessness Action Plan” would require the city to spend 12 percent of its general fund on homelessness, build 2,000 new emergency housing (shelter) beds within one year, create individualized “service plans” for every person experiencing homelessness, and, as Harrell put it, “ensure that our city parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces, sidewalks, and streets remain open and clear of encampments.” These proposals are all identical to provisions of Charter Amendment 29, which Harrell supported.
At Thursday’s event, which was billed as a press conference but resembled a campaign rally, Harrell fielded questions primarily from a large group of supporters rather than the assembled press. “If and when you become mayor, how soon can we as Green Lake citizens expect to see these encampments gone?” one supporter asked. “I will say January or February, because I work with a sense of urgency,” Harrell responded.
“They are not mean-spirited people. They’re simply asking a very fundamental question: Can our parks be safe again? … Can our children play like they once did?”—Bruce Harrell
Another asked how he’d respond to critics who say that his plan would mean sweeping encampments without providing services. “Look at my record,” Harrell responded. “There are no dog whistles. I don’t have a dog whistle. And I say, how dare people say that, when my wife and I’ve been doing this for for 20, 30 years.”
Harrell also reiterated his proposal to create a city-run program that would give people the opportunity to volunteer or give tax-exempt donations to nonprofits working on homelessness, which he also described at a press conference outside an encampment at Bitter Lake in Mune. “Everyone can chip in—it could be clothing, it could be resume assistance, it could be anything that exhibits an effort to help the problem,” he said.
Harrell said he understood why Green Lake residents are fed up with people living in the park, where the largest concentration of tents and RVs is located in triangle of land bordered roughly by Aurora Ave. and a portion of West Green Lake Way. The city closed the street to traffic as part of the Stay Healthy Streets program during the early months of the pandemic, and some residents blame the closure for the proliferation of tents. “They are not mean-spirited people. They’re simply asking a very fundamental question: Can our parks be safe again? … Can our children play like they once did?”
His plan for removing people from parks, however, remains vague; in response to another supporter’s question about how he would deal with “the majority of the people that are camping here [who] don’t want assistance,” Harrell said he would deal with people “on a case by case basis,” depending on their needs.
“I have the executive authority [as mayor] to direct mental health counselors and housing advocates down here, I have the executive ability to bring down individualized case management experts down here, [and] I have the ability to once again allow traffic and then have a conversation with the community to see what kinds of improvements down here can be made.”
But his promise—which would put the city at cross purposes with the new regional homelessness authority, which is taking over all the city’s contracts for homelessness-related services next year—came with a hard edge. “I just think that there has to be consequences for that kind of action,” Harrell said, referring to people who don’t accept the services or shelter they’re offered, “because many people—and I’m very close to the world of people struggling with drug and alcohol treatment, people that have challenges—many of them are in denial. Many of them do not know what they need. They just do not.”
More than one local pundit has bemoaned the fact that high school cross country running coaches have apparently moved their training events from Lower Woodland Park to other parks in the city so that—to quote a column by local cross country dad Danny Westneat—”Lower Woodland is not safe for children to run in.” Harrell mentioned that his kids, too, ran cross country, and that the encampment is “denying [young people] not only tradition, but denying healthy, youthful activity.”
As Harrell spoke, people walked dogs and ran with strollers along Green Lake in the background. A hundred yards further, and up a path leading to the lawn bowling courts on the north end of the park, unsheltered people were washing their hair, working on motorcycle and RV engines, and waking up for the day. Several people said hello as I walked past their tents. It was hard to deny the crisis the people living at Green Lake were facing, but harder still to see how a small increase in spending on homelessness, including a couple thousand new shelter beds, would make it possible to remove them (and every other unsheltered person in Seattle) without forcing them to go.