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News / Northwest

Seattle asylum-seekers outside again

Hundreds in tents in city park after funding runs out

By Anna Patrick, The Seattle Times
Published: May 3, 2024, 3:23pm
2 Photos
Genesis Perez, 31, who is from Venezuela and is seeking U.S. asylum, waits Tuesday by a tent that she and her family slept in overnight without access to shelter at Powell Barnett Park in Seattle.
Genesis Perez, 31, who is from Venezuela and is seeking U.S. asylum, waits Tuesday by a tent that she and her family slept in overnight without access to shelter at Powell Barnett Park in Seattle. (Photos by Ivy Ceballo/The Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

Hundreds of asylum-seekers are back living outside after running out of private donations to cover their stay in hotels and short-term rentals across King County.

They are now sleeping in a large-scale homeless encampment in a Seattle park even after King County awarded $2 million this month to local nonprofits to support asylum-seekers in need of shelter as they wait to receive their work permits.

The two organizations that received $750,000 each from the county to fund housing for asylum-seekers say their money is intended to establish longer-term, more sustainable housing, not to cover hotel stays temporarily. Despite that, one of the groups has already helped two families from the Quality Inn move into housing.

City and county leadership say no other funding exists to support this group.

A spokesperson for King County Executive Dow Constantine said the $2 million in grant funding was all that was left to help asylum-seekers, many of whom are living at a church in Tukwila or spread among hotels in South King County.

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office also claimed to have exhausted its funding for shelter and services for migrants.

The group of close to 300 people, including dozens of children, set up tents Monday afternoon in the grassy area of the Central District’s Powell Barnett Park as the rain fell.

“We really want long-term support,” said Keysi Ibarra, 31. She’s originally from Venezuela and currently living at the park with her two kids and partner.

Mutual aid groups and individuals have come forward to donate food, tents and supplies, but Ibarra said one of their biggest things they need right now is medicine for children.

“A lot of kids have colds or are coughing,” she said.

Other residents of the park, originally from Angola, said more beds, bedding and clothing are needed to care for everyone.

On Tuesday afternoon, more than 50 tents were erected with blue, black and green tarps dotting the ground. Dozens of people huddled around a grill, waiting to grab a hot dog or hamburger for lunch. Some women used cardboard to sit on the grass. At the park’s playground, children played on the swings and men played basketball on the outdoor court.

About a month ago, this same group sought refuge for one night outside of Seattle’s Garfield Community Center after running out of private donations to cover their hotel stay. Since January, more than 200 people have been living at the Quality Inn and facing continual threats of eviction. First, a nonprofit said it would arrange payment for their stays for a year, but that proved false. Since then, local government leaders have been unwilling to take ownership of the issue and fully cover the cost to keep most people in shelter at the hotel or elsewhere.

Lutheran Community Services Northwest and Refugee Women’s Alliance, working alongside the Low-Income Housing Institute and the Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, each were awarded $750,000 from the county to provide housing and case-management services.

Matt Misterek, spokesperson for Lutheran Community Services, said he is saddened by the asylum-seekers being forced back outside, but their contract with King County hasn’t been signed or finalized yet.

Jon Grant — speaking on behalf of the Low-Income Housing Institute, the Refugee Women’s Alliance and the Riverton Park church — said their group has already moved 36 people, including two families that were living at the Kent Quality Inn, into longer-term housing as of Tuesday evening. King County’s money hasn’t arrived yet, but Grant said these three organizations are moving ahead.

He said he’s currently working with King County to find a way to get about 100 more people currently living outside into 30 units of housing.

But he added, “We’re uncertain if the funding is there to sustain it.”

Before this emergency, Grant said the funding was intended to move some of the most vulnerable people living at the Tukwila church into more permanent housing and to assist the church in covering some of the many costs it’s taken on over the last year while sheltering hundreds of asylum-seekers on its property.

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Tukwila’s Riverton Park United Methodist Church first began sheltering asylum-seekers in 2022. Since then, the small church has become the epicenter of the region’s asylum-seeker crisis — remaining the only organization willing to consistently support this population in their shelter and food needs.

Ibarra said that after living at the church, many families found a new routine at the Kent Quality Inn. Some enrolled their children in school.

And while some of the rooms were cramped — some families doubled up to allow more people to get inside — Ibarra said living at the hotel felt good because they had a roof over their heads.