By Erica C. Barnett
Last Wednesday, police and parks department workers removed a highly visible encampment in downtown Seattle after a weekslong standoff between protesters and the city. Mayor Bruce Harrell justified the no-notice sweep by saying the encampment was an “obstruction to pedestrian access” along Fourth Avenue between James and Columbia Streets—a stretch of sidewalk that happens to be visible from the mayor’s office on the seventh floor of City Hall.
Across town, the sweep left advocates and outreach workers wondering whether the city would take similarly swift action to clear a controversial encampment at Woodland Park—the largest remaining park-based encampment in the city, and one Harrell has repeatedly identified as a top priority for his administration. During his campaign, for example, Harrell said the encampment would be gone by “January or February” of this year, “because I work with a sense of urgency.” In January, Harrell officially identified Woodland Park as a “top-priority” site. Then, last month, he re-emphasized the point in his state of the city speech, saying, “we will continue our efforts on top priorities like Woodland Park. … Woodland Park is a gem in our city—and trash, fires, continued inhumane conditions are not acceptable, period.”
Last month, a fire at a campsite in Woodland Park destroyed a tent and damaged a park shelter, prompting renewed neighborhood calls for the city to clear the encampment.
To address trash, the city installed five Dumpsters in the park at a cost of $2,000 each, according to a spokeswoman for the Parks Department.
City Councilmember Dan Strauss, who represents the neighborhood surrounding the park, has said the city will take a methodical approach to clearing the encampment—creating a list of every person living there, then moving each of them individually to appropriate shelter or housing before securing the area against future encampments and reclaiming it for general public use. The city took a similar approach at the Ballard Commons, with one major difference—when the city closed the Commons, dozens of new shelter and housing spots had just become available, making it much easier than usual to relocate people into places they actually wanted to be.
“I have heard about people coming to Woodland Park. We’re trying to make sure folks know, you’re not going to move here and get bumped up a list or anything like that.”—City Councilmember Dan Strauss
At Woodland Park, in contrast, the city must rely on its existing, inadequate pool of shelter and housing options—a tiny house here, a single bed in a gender-segregated shelter there—and hope that people both “accept” referrals to shelter and actually go shelter and stay there instead of coming back.
To that end, the city is reserving “approximately half” of whatever shelter beds open up for people living in Woodland Park, Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. “Otherwise, the timeline for making offers of shelter to those residing in Woodland Park would only be further extended given the number of people residing onsite”—between 60 and 80, according to outreach workers in the area.
Another difference between Woodland Park and the Ballard Commons is that Woodland Park is much larger and can’t easily be contained, like the Commons, by a fence. This makes it easy for new people to move in—which, Strauss acknowledges, they are doing now.
“I have heard about people coming to Woodland Park,” Strauss said, including some who have arrived specifically because they’ve heard that the city is making shelter and housing available to people living there. “We’re trying to make sure folks know, you’re not going to move here and get bumped up a list or anything like that.” Outreach workers say that when the city announces an encampment will be swept soon, people usually show up from other places, hoping to get access to shelter and services that are unavailable to people living elsewhere.
To ensure the list of people on the list for shelter and services at Woodland Park doesn’t get longer, outreach workers are creating a “by-name list” of people eligible for expedited access because they lived in the park before a certain date; those who arrive later will get “the same priority as everyone else in the city,” Strauss said. The city prioritizes people for shelter based on their “vulnerability,” a grim calculus that includes factors like a person’s age, disabilities, and the length of time they’ve been homeless. Currently, there are only a handful of shelter beds available on any night for the tens of thousands of people the King County Regional Homelessness Authority now estimates are homeless across the region.
Katie Jendrey, a volunteer with a mutual-aid group that has been working in Woodland Park for months, said the existence of a fixed “by-name list” suggests an officially sanctioned division of Woodland Park’s homeless population into haves and have-nots—those who might get shelter because they got there first, and those who will, by official city policy, be left behind.
“I do think the city is doing something right in doing intensive outreach over an extended time,” Jendrey said. But, she added, “we’ve been nervous about this by-name list thing, because the population always fluctuates. To say ‘We’ve got a list’ [is to say], ‘This is who we’re going to give services to, not those people.'”
For example, Jendrey said, a Woodland Park resident who had been calling shelters for months on his own recently managed to secure a private room simply because he happened to be “in the right place at the right time.”
Bruce Drager, a Green Lake neighborhood resident who has been doing his own ad hoc outreach in the park for several months, said he feels “sorry for all the other homeless folks around town that aren’t being served” because the city is prioritizing Woodland Park. “I think they’re doing a hell of a good job compared to what they did [during a December sweep] at Green Lake, where they did virtually no outreach, but the question now is, what’s the plan?”
Mutual aid workers have been asking people living in the park what their ideal living situation would be, if availability and cost were no object. Consistently, mutual aid volunteer Ed Mast said, they’ve expressed the desire to “still live in some kind of a community,” rather than isolated in hotel rooms or scattered in shelters across the city. “People are creative and would still like to have some level of autonomy and choice” about where they live, Mast said.
Data from the city’s Human Services Department show that the majority of people who receive referrals don’t follow up on them; last year, fewer than half the people who received shelter referrals actually showed up at shelter and stayed there for even one night, and even that was an improvement on previous years.
“That’s exactly what’s misting from those options,” Jendrey added. “People say, ‘I want to stay with my street family,’ ‘I want to stay with my friends,’ ‘I want to stay with my community,’ ‘I don’t want to be siphoned off into an apartment somewhere.’ Some people say, ‘I want to live in a room with my friends, where we share a bathroom but all live in the same house.'” But the shelter options that come open, overwhelmingly, are individual beds, temporary hotel rooms, or—in the best-case scenario—spots in tiny house villages.
Citywide, there are very few resources‚ including basic shelter beds, to go around—and whatever happens to be available on a given night might be not just less than ideal, but inappropriate or inaccessible. Data from the city’s Human Services Department show that the majority of people who receive referrals don’t follow up on them; last year, fewer than half the people who received shelter referrals actually showed up at shelter and stayed there for even one night, and even that was an improvement on previous years, when what the city calls the shelter “acceptance” rate hovered around 33 percent.
According to HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt, “at least nine” people had received referrals to shelter (eight) or permanent supportive housing (one) as of March 7; last Friday, Strauss told PubliCola that five more people received referrals last week. If, in keeping with last year’s trend, about half those people actually showed up at shelter, that means that perhaps seven people have moved on from Woodland Park into shelter or housing—a fraction of the 60 to 80 people outreach providers estimate are living on site.
Strauss said he isn’t stressed that the mayor will move to sweep the park prematurely, and says he knew from the beginning that removing the encampment without simply displacing people would take months. “From the conversations that I continue to have” with the mayor’s office, Strauss said, “I don’t have concerns at this time, because we’re taking a deliberate and thoughtful approach.”