Encampments, conditions at Seattle parks draw scrutiny as pandemic drags on

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This article was originally published by The Seattle Times on Oct. 27, 2020.

By Scott Greenstone and Daniel Beekman

Calling the situation in many of Seattle’s large parks “a spiraling public-health and public-safety crisis,” more than a dozen business and neighborhood groups sent a letter Monday to the mayor and City Council lobbying them to act.

Scores of tents have cropped up at parks across Seattle, the letter said, also arguing there has been an uptick in trash, drug use, violence and maintenance problems in outdoor spaces. The letter asked Durkan and the council to create an interdepartmental team to address the mounting challenges.

“These issues are complex, but that does not absolve the city of responsibility,” the letter said.

There are more people living in parks than before the pandemic, outreach workers and those who are camping there agree. They say more housing is needed to bring people inside, with some saying they’re being demonized for issues outside their control.

The city’s 485 parks have become more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, but programs in parks have been suspended and maintenance has been deferred, Monday’s letter said. Meanwhile, the pandemic has disrupted Seattle’s shelter system, and the city has largely stopped removing homeless encampments, partly because federal and state public health officials have warned that dispersing people could spread the virus.

“People experiencing homelessness remain highly vulnerable to COVID-19,” the illness caused by the coronavirus, said TJ Cosgrove, a division director at Public Health — Seattle & King County, in a statement advising against the removal of encampments during the pandemic.

Cosgrove said that this is especially important now as King County cases climb.

“Life got harder, especially when COVID hit for homeless people and low-income people,” said Jazmin Sanders, who pitched her tent months ago among others at Denny Park in South Lake Union. “I just ended up here, like tumbling down a hill.”

Monday’s letter complained about sprinklers and flowers being destroyed at the recently renovated park. Many campers who sleep under the elderly evergreens and shiny skyscrapers that soar above the park have worked hard to keep the area clean, even before the city brought portable toilets and a dumpster there, they say.

Workers from the city-contracted nonprofit REACH have seen an uptick in park camping in the past year, said program director Chloe Gale. As some camps under freeways have been swept and fenced off, more people are camping in places they never did before, including parks close to meals and other amenities, Gale said.

Gale said REACH workers have been meeting with parks groups and Seattle Parks and Recreation staff for the last few months, and have been able to work with some unsheltered people to try to keep parks open for everyone to use.

“Sometimes that does mean, unfortunately, looking for a better place to camp,” Gale said. “Most people are actually very amenable to that conversation. The problem is, we need shelter, and hotels.”

Business- and civic-group leaders from Ballard, Chinatown International District, Capitol Hill, Denny Triangle, downtown, Georgetown, Lake City, Pioneer Square and West Seattle Junction say conditions at various parks are unhealthy and unsafe for the people living there and for people who want to use the spaces for recreation.

“Our parks and public spaces have become dangerous and chaotic,” said Monday’s letter, which was copied to parks Superintendent Jesús Aguirre and police Chief Adrian Diaz, among others.

Many would-be park-goers now stay away, the letter says, describing rugged conditions at 13 parks in dense neighborhoods without including data related to public health and public safety at the sites.

Seattle Central College President Sheila Edwards Lange, whose campus abuts Cal Anderson Park, signed the letter. The park on Capitol Hill has been technically closed since the summer, when protests erupted in the neighborhood, though people have continued to camp and spend time there.

Edwards Lange had concerns about the park before the pandemic and protests led the city to close the park in June, and her concerns have only grown, she said.

“It’s just not safe,” she said, citing broken glass, graffiti and poor lighting. “We would like the park to be open and activated.”

The letter claims that Albert Davis Park in Lake City has “become completely unusable” due to an encampment with nearly 30 tents. More than 40 tents and structures have cropped up at Ballard Commons Park, and more than 75 tents occupy City Hall Park downtown, according to the letter.

Trash pickup, pressure washing, graffiti removal and other maintenance has been halted at Hing Hay Park in Chinatown International District, according to the letter.

“The city has not responded to repeated requests to maintain outdoor seating and resume concierge service in Hing Hay Park,” the letter said.

James Sido, spokesperson for the Downtown Seattle Association, didn’t answer directly when asked whether the letter was meant to pressure City Hall to evict unsheltered people from the parks.

Seattle Parks and Recreation is overwhelmed at the moment, Sido said.

“The city needs to bring these spaces back online and ensure they are safely usable for everyone,” with Seattle Public Utilities and the city’s Human Services Department needed to handle waste and homeless assistance, he said.

“The city should prioritize outreach and shelter spaces for those living outdoors, and develop an actual plan for maintaining these spaces,” Sido said.

The City Council, which has sought to block encampment removals by the Durkan administration’s police-aided Navigation Team, passed a tentative deal Monday to fund more outreach through the end of the year and, at the same time, keep the city involved somewhat with coordinating that work.

Durkan hailed the move and noted that her 2021 budget plan, under review now by the council, would open 425 short-term shelter beds and then increase spending on programs that house people quickly.

Since curbing removals in March, the Navigation Team has completed hundreds of site visits, cleanups and shelter referrals while distributing thousands of hygiene kits and meals, the mayor’s office said. Shelter enrollments grew after the pandemic began, the office said.

With City Hall now coming under more pressure over the conditions in parks, Sanders said removing tents shouldn’t be the answer.

“The issue shouldn’t be that there are too many tents here. The issue should be why there are so many people without help,” Sanders said.