After Threat at Woodland Park, City Scrambled for Last-Minute Shelter Referrals, Then Swept

"Park temporarily closed" sign at an entrance to Woodland Park

By Erica C. Barnett

When the city removed a large, longstanding encampment from Woodland Park last week, elected officials announced that they were able to refer almost everyone on site to shelter, an achievement they said was only possible because of long-term efforts to identify and provide personalized outreach to the people living in the park.

“After four months of intensive outreach, we moved 85 people out of the park and into shelter or transitional or permanent supportive housing… and this is because in January, we created a by-name list, and in February, we finished the needs assessment for these folks and began moving people inside,” City Councilmember Dan Strauss, whose district includes the park, said at a council meeting Monday. (The Human Services Department said the total number was 83). In a statement last week, the city said it was aware of at least 12 people who “voluntarily relocated” from the park.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, Jamie Housen, echoed this line, telling PubliCola that the city had accomplished its “goal since the onset of this coordinated engagement[—]to ensure that everyone residing onsite received an offer of shelter and that the vast majority were connected to the best-suited shelter and support services.”

Behind the scenes, though, the city reportedly considered aborting outreach efforts and sweeping the camp immediately earlier this month, after an outreach worker with the Human Service Department’s HOPE Team—a group of social service workers who do outreach at encampments and offer shelter referrals prior to sweeps—was threatened with a gun by someone living in the park, several people familiar with the encampment told PubliCola. The incident, which has not been previously reported, caused city and nonprofit outreach workers to abandon the encampment for several days in the week prior to its removal last Tuesday.

All of a sudden, according to a neighbor who has been volunteering at the encampment for the past several months, “It was raining tiny houses. Where had they all been?”

“When we heard there were guns in the area, we had our staff step back,” said Chloe Gale, the director of the outreach nonprofit REACH, which partnered with the city to provide outreach in Woodland Park. Seattle police officers were on site when outreach workers returned. “We definitely do not request for law enforcement to go” to encampments, but “they were there, and we were willing to be there with them,” Gale said.

Housen did not respond directly to questions about the gun incident, saying only that “outreach providers and City employees who engage encampments may encounter situations that are unsafe.” Asked if Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington, who heads up homelessness for the mayor’s office, pushed to shut the encampment down sooner, Housen gave a one-word answer: “No.”

After the threat, efforts to find shelter options for everyone living at the encampment—including both those on the city’s “by-name list” and those who moved to the park in the months since, including the weeks and days immediately prior to the sweep—went into overdrive. All of a sudden, according to a neighbor who has been volunteering at the encampment for the past several months, “It was raining tiny houses. Where had they all been?”

As PubliCola reported last week, just four people living in the park got housing. Of the 79 people who got referrals to shelter, 49—almost two-thirds—received their referrals in the final week before the sweep.

Debris left outside a picnic shelter after an encampment removal at Woodland Park

According to Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, her organization was “asked to accommodate 30 people” from the Woodland Park encampment  “all at once,” and scrambled to create space in eight of its tiny house villages across the city. Four moved into LIHI’s Whitter Heights village in northwest Seattle. Another 12 went to Interbay, North Seattle, and South Lake Union, respectively. Five ended up—temporarily, Lee says—at LIHI’s new Southend Village in Rainier Beach, whose 40 slots are intended for people living unsheltered in South Seattle.

“We were not told until the end of last week”—the week before the sweep—”that [the city] would like us to help them at Woodland Park,” Lee said, “and we told them, no, we are not going to move everybody into Southend Village because we have a commitment to the neighborhood to take in local references.” According to Lee, LIHI held beds open for Woodland Park residents as people moved out of tiny house villages and opened up some slots by expediting some residents’ placements into permanent supportive housing. “If we were told sooner, obviously, over the last few months we could have done it more naturally as vacancies occurred.”

Exacerbating the problem was the fact that, according to several people familiar with the encampment’s shifting population, dozens of people moved into the park in the weeks immediately prior to the encampment removal. Many arrived after the city swept other nearby encampments, including some who had been living in Ballard’s industrial “brewery district.” It’s common for some people to relocate to encampments the city is about to sweep in the hope of accessing resources, such as tiny houses, that aren’t otherwise available to people living unsheltered. Some may have also been encouraged to move to Woodland Park by a neighborhood resident who has been doing ad hoc outreach at the park for months.

In the end, the majority of the people who moved out of Woodland Park and into shelter—about 50—were relocated not over the three months since the city finalized its “by-name list,” but in the final week of the encampment’s existence, including 27 who moved on the very day of the sweep.

As PubliCola reported last week, just four people living in the park got housing. Of the 79 people who got referrals to shelter, 49—almost two-thirds—received their referrals in the final week before the sweep.

This raises the question: Why couldn’t the city have offered spots to people living in Woodland Park much sooner, rather than going to the trouble of creating a “by-name list” that had no bearing on the final outcome? If “restoring Woodland Park to its intended use,” as the mayor’s office has put it, was a top priority, why not move people into tiny houses or other shelter over the course of months, rather than rushing everyone out at the last minute?

According to Harrell spokesman Housen, one reason the city didn’t move faster is because people simply refused to take the shelter they were offered. “Referrals were made throughout the engagement process with the first referral taking place on January 28th,” Housen said. “While outreach providers made diligent efforts to refer individuals throughout their time at Woodland, some individuals chose to decline shelter until a removal date was communicated.”

The last-minute rush of referrals led to some last-minute chaos. “It was still a mass eviction, and things were happening at the last possible minute,” with people having to make quick decisions about whether to move across town or lose out on shelter, the neighborhood volunteer said. “If people were told they had to be out at 10 and they were given a [tiny] home at 9, some of their possessions might have ended up in a car going to the north end and they might have been in a car going to the south end.”

“We were not told until the end of last week”—the week before the sweep—”that [the city] would like us to help them at Woodland Park. If we were told sooner, obviously, over the last few months we could have done it more naturally as vacancies occurred.”—LIHI director Sharon Lee

Almost everyone PubliCola spoke to about the Woodland Park encampment removal—from mutual aid volunteers and outreach workers to elected officials—said that the removal was ultimately a “success,” in the sense that nearly everyone living in the park received an offer of shelter before the dump trucks rolled in. “I think the biggest accomplishment here was not moving people inside, and was not returning the park to its intended use—the biggest accomplishment was changing how the city does business when it removes encampments,” Strauss said.

What it also demonstrates—and what previous encampment removals, such as a similar slow-motion sweep of the Ballard Commons, have shown—is that when the city decides to reserve a large number of shelter beds and resources for a single encampment, the people in that one encampment are very likely to end up in shelter. Meanwhile, thousands of other people living outdoors remain in tents, vulnerable to sweeps.

“At the Ballard Commons, with shelter expansion, we were able to move people in differently than when we have to rely on throughput” from people leaving shelters, Strauss said. “And when we’re having to rely on throughput, it also means that we’re prioritizing shelter beds for people in Woodland Park while there’s a need citywide.”

So far, both of the city’s efforts to take a “new approach to encampment removals” have taken place in wealthy, mostly white North Seattle neighborhoods where people frequently complain about encampments. Meanwhile, people living unsheltered in other neighborhoods—like the International District, where the city swept about 50 people from private property after a shooting in March—receive minimal notice and no long-term, personalized outreach before the city sends them packing.

“Why did this happen at Woodland Park?” the volunteer asked. “It happened because our neighborhood is largely white and privileged… not because these were the people who were suffering the most, but because the city wanted this park clear, so it suddenly got prioritized.”

14 thoughts on “After Threat at Woodland Park, City Scrambled for Last-Minute Shelter Referrals, Then Swept”

  1. Use your imagination! Disturbing the peace, trespassing, failure to follow police directions, interference with public duties (cleaning and policing the park), etc. At this point, middle-class Seattle really doesn’t care. And as the placements showed, shelter is available. It may not be what the individual wants. Middle class Seattle really doesn’t care about that either. One of the stories about the park clean-up told the tale of a woman who had a LEAD apartment in Bellevue, but stuck to the park because her dog wasn’t allowed there. So she’s an addict, who committed a crime, and took on care of a pet when she couldn’t care for herself. Middle class Seattle doesn’t think too much of that nonsense.

  2. This story shows, again, that people are coming here for free housing. All those people moving into places about to be swept know they’ll have a better chance. And the word has gone out all over the place: come to Seattle where you will (eventually) get a free tiny house and lots of other free services!

  3. I listened to the trees being cut, watched the holes being dug along aurora, saw the shelters with ‘private property’ signs being burnt to the ground after housing you for not one, or two, but THREE years. In over 100 years I don’t think woodland park and this district has ever had such pathetic stewardship. If it were up to strauss, he likely would have let it continue forever.

  4. At least they came in & made a pretty thorough effort to get as many a place to stay. Over here just a few miles away in Parkland there was a tiny encampment of my Fiance, myself & 2 others & the Pierce county sheriff came in started breaking things, cutting personal property , making it unusable, placing me in cuffs cuz i didn’t answer there question fast enough. Then degrading us & proceeded to Tell us we had 10 minutes to grab anything we wanted to keep & leave the premises. Pierce county sheriff’s are inhumane & do nothing but bully the homeless around out here

  5. What happened to the person who threatened a city employee? That seems important.

    I get the frustration with a lack of urgency to house the houseless. I’m also troubled by the revelation that a threat of violence tipped the scales to action. Is this a roadmap to get services, threatening staff with guns?

  6. All this shows is that the Harrell administration has a huge problem given the uncoordinated homelessness system it inherited where even basic communication is challenging.

  7. Not everyone, in fact, was offered shelter. We documented 14 folks who themselves claim that they were never offered any housing or shelter. The report last week by KUOW also cited a dozen people sitting on a curb at Woodland, who had no place to go.

      1. Sorry, I don’t see the update to reflect that some folks had no offer of shelter. Maybe you mean the word “almost” in “elected officials announced that they were able to refer almost everyone on site to shelter”.
        I see a lot of quotes implying that everyone was offered shelter:
        Jamie Housen: “… that the city had accomplished its ‘goal since the onset of this coordinated engagement engagement[—]to ensure that everyone residing onsite received an offer of shelter’ ”
        “efforts to find shelter options for everyone living at the encampment—including both those on the city’s “by-name list” and those who moved to the park in the months since …”
        “some individuals chose to decline shelter until a removal date was communicated.”

        “when the city decides to reserve a large number of shelter beds and resources for a single encampment, the people in that one encampment are very likely to end up in shelter”

        To be clear, I don’t object to the city clearing a homeless camp out of a public park, but the law requires that everyone (not just “most”) is offered alternate shelter at the time of the sweep.

        Here’s the court decision language:
        MARTIN V. CITY OF BOISE, Sept 4, 2018:
        Turning to the merits, the panel held that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment precluded the enforcement of a statute prohibiting sleeping outside against homeless individuals with no access to alternative shelter. The panel held that, as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.

        In particular, there is a photo in a KUOW article on line about the Woodland sweep, of a couple packing up their tent. I know those two very well. They claim they were never offered any shelter. They arrived at Woodland around Feb 22 and are now moved to another public park area. These are the folks that Martin v. Boise is supposed to protect.

    1. I tend to believe the people frome HOPE team and REACH when they say the provided referrals for four months. Maybe the people interviewed rejected referri until it was too late. Or maybe they moved there at last minute to try and get a referral and all referrals were already given to those that had been living there for four months or more.

      Also – this park was taken over more than two years ago. The entire surrounding neighborhood put up with constant property crime increase for that entire time. Clearing this park was not done only because some rich people complained. Many parks in south Seattle, little Saigon and Seattle downtown were cleared before lower woodland. They waited their turn and got no special treatment as your reporting suggests.

    2. No one was arrested or cited for occupying Woodland Park. As I understand it, Martin vs. Boise does not prohibit “move along” enforcement to keep our parks safe, clean, and usable by the public. As for why so many campers didn’t take offers of shelter before, isn’t it amazing how a deadline concentrates the mind?

      1. I think that Martin needs to be tested and fleshed out in court cases. It says a person cannot be prosecuted for sleeping in a park when there is no shelter space. But if you want to defend the city’s right to “move the person along”, then the question is on what basis? What law is the person violating, apart from the one that Martin says is unenforceable when there is no available shelter?

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