Tuesday, June 28, 2022
June 28, 2022

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Seattle clears Woodland Park homeless encampment after months of trying to place people into shelter


SEATTLE — City crews began dismantling more than 40 tents and structures at Woodland Park on Tuesday morning, capping months of sustained outreach to the people living there and tension with neighbors and park users.

The Woodland Park encampment, which is among the largest remaining in a Seattle park, has been a top focus for Mayor Bruce Harrell. He held a campaign event at adjoining Green Lake Park during his run for mayor, saying that he would escalate enforcement of camping laws and increase “consequences” for people who do not go to shelter.

Since taking office, he has largely delivered on returning to the pre-pandemic status quo of encampment removals — camps are removed after shorter notice and police are again present.

However, the Woodland Park encampment has been an exception to that approach.

An encampment at Green Lake, at the north end of the park, was cleared about six months ago after neighbors and people who use the park complained that their access was limited by the growing number of tents and people living outside.

Some people who were cleared from around Green Lake moved south to Woodland Park, joining those already there.

In January, 80 people were estimated to be living there. In February, the city counted 61, but it’s often difficult to get an exact count because people come and go.

Paul Kostek, chair of the Greenlake Community Council, a neighborhood group with members near both parks, says the Woodland Park removal was a long time coming.

“It turns it back to who it’s supposed to serve,” Kostek said. “It’s supposed to be a park for everyone to use and not have people in the mode where they’re very uncomfortable using the facilities.”

He has lived in the area for 25 years and said that the encampment ballooned during the pandemic. Across the city, social services contracted as coronavirus precautions increased, leaving many people on the street. At the same time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised cities to stop moving homeless residents from one place to another.

The encampment’s size and visibility is unusual for the Green Lake and Woodland parks area, where Kostek said homeless neighbors are usually older and there are fewer of them.

Citing the encampments, organizers of annual cross country events with thousands of participants at Lower Woodland Park last year either relocated or canceled their meets. Members of a lawn bowling club, as well as runners and other people who use the parks for sports and recreation activities, said they felt unsafe or found amenities inaccessible because of the tents and apparent drug use.

Over the last four months, the city’s HOPE team, which coordinates outreach services for encampment removals, have worked with partners to assess residents’ needs and offer them shelter.

Many people moved out of the park voluntarily.

As of Tuesday morning, 4 people from that February count remained at the park; the city said the residents and service providers couldn’t reach agreement on placement.

“The city has enough tiny-house village and enhanced shelter options to accommodate all those remaining on site today and everyone on site will have received a legitimate offer of shelter,” Jamie Housen, a Harrell spokesperson, said in an email Tuesday. “Some have received numerous offers of shelter.”

The mayor’s office said it had referred 83 individuals to some form of shelter, a number that it called “unprecedented.”

On Tuesday, four days after the city posted a notice stating that all belongings must be removed from the park, rain poured as people began to pack up. Volunteers who said they were neighbors helped residents load garbage bags full of belongings into cars. Two former residents of the park embraced before one of them got in a car.

Just after 9 a.m., city staff cordoned off a section of the park and began tearing down the more than half-dozen tents and structures on the northwest edge of the park near Aurora Avenue.

As city crews worked, 10 police officers stood by, corralling spectators. Once the tents came down, two excavators scooped up what remained of people’s belongings and trash into dump trucks.

David Sandoval, who has been living in the park since last winter, watched the encampment grow substantially in recent months.

“I’m pretty sure because they see on the news, and the word around here, that people in the park are getting housing,” Sandoval said. “Because, I mean, nobody wants to stay like this.”

For Sandoval, the city’s offer of shelter where dozens of people share living space does not suit his needs because of health concerns. He had originally accepted the referral, but thinks he may be back out in a tent.

“It’s just hygiene. COVID,” Sandoval said. “Some people don’t like to keep up hygiene, some do things that, you know, have their hands in places that they don’t need to have them in and just touch all over everything else.”

Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss, whose district includes Woodland Park, said the outreach for Woodland Park took longer than at Green Lake or Ballard Commons Park, because more shelter space was available then.

He said in the case of Woodland Park, the city had to rely on the natural cycling of the city’s shelter system. Plus, because the city was reserving capacity for Woodland Park residents, Strauss said “the drawbacks are the other parts of the city don’t receive the shelter availability.”

He suggested more shelter capacity would alleviate that issue.

“For individuals, it might not be the right time, they might not feel ready to move inside. And that’s a personal choice,” Strauss said. “It’s the city’s duty and responsibility to be able to restore the parks for their use as designed and to ensure that we are taking the time to build the relationships that do help people move inside.”

Andrea Lolë began to pack up her wet belongings and tent before crews arrived. Lolë has been living in the park on and off for the past year. She appreciates that people in the park help each other, she said, as she handed another resident a headlamp. Extension cords from a single tent’s generator stretched to at least five other tents to provide power and heat.

Lolë has an apartment in Bellevue through the legal system diversion program LEAD, but says she can’t stay there because she was asked to get rid of her dog, Ragnar, who she’s had for two years.

She said the city’s outreach workers did not offer her a different housing option. She understands that neighbors want access to the park, but said that perhaps they could coexist with those living outdoors.

“So the ones that are going to get housing, great. But the ones that are not, maybe seclude them away from the public,” Lolë said.

She said she and Ragnar didn’t know where they would go after they left the park.

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