Volunteer Group That Removes Trash From Homeless Encampments Draws Criticism

by Ashley Archibald

Mutual aid practitioners who have long worked with homeless individuals have called on the Seattle City Council to disavow We Heart Seattle (WHS), a volunteer group that removes trash from homeless encampments across the city. WHS’s critics insist the group has illegally removed belongings, focused more on cleaning up sites rather than the welfare of unsheltered residents, and used inappropriate tactics to remove people experiencing homelessness from public spaces. 

WHS got its start in late 2020 under the original name We Heart Downtown Seattle. Andrea Suarez formed the group in reaction to what she saw as a proliferation of graffiti, garbage, and condemned buildings in her neighborhood. She bought some trash pickers on Amazon and began organizing people to collect trash. 

Volunteers with mutual aid societies, such as Sandi Olson, believe the group’s seemingly good intentions are misplaced.

 “My first inclination was, ‘Someone with privilege is taking real action toward helping encampments with garbage collection? Yay, this is fantastic,” Olson said. “Unfortunately, the way that [Suarez] goes about doing it has been problematic, and the way that she’s received challenge[s] or question[s] or concern[s] about her behavior has been even more problematic.” 

But in an interview with the Emerald, Suarez defended WHS’s actions, claiming the group’s primary interest is helping clean up the city and helping people find shelter. “We are a privately funded nonprofit group of volunteers. We are a grassroots movement to help address the humanitarian crisis we have with our houseless community,” Suarez said.

Taking issue with Suarez and her tactics, a letter addressed to all nine councilmembers and posted on Twitter spells out the differences that local mutual aid groups see between their work and that of We Heart Seattle — namely that WHS works to move homeless people out of sight while trying to fulfill the needs of individual people they’ve built relationships with. A post on Twitter said the letter has 212 signatures, but the Emerald could not confirm at press time if the Council had received the letter or who had signed it.

“Support provided by housed people emerges out of an understanding of the real conditions experienced by the people living outside, adapts when those needs change, and doesn’t attempt to impose solutions or priorities,” the mutual aid letter reads.

The letter also catalogs a list of incidents — some documented in screenshots and video, others based on anonymous reports — of negative interactions between We Heart Seattle founder Andrea Suarez and mutual aid groups.

WHS counters that its work helps to get people into shelter, housing, and other programs through limited, consensual outreach, as well as reducing trash in public places. 

“In the months since our inception, we have picked up over 50,000 pounds of trash and worked alongside 30 people living outside to move them inside,” WHS wrote in an email to councilmembers. “We work one-on-one to get to know the individuals and work together to find the best option for them.”

The mutual aid letter specifically cites WHS’s meetings with Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents District 7, which includes downtown, the neighborhood where the organization first began its trash cleanups.

“I do not condone private groups conducting any such activities …” Lewis said in a statement to KOMO News. “They agreed to sync all of their activities with … the Human Services Department going forward.” 

“I am disturbed and saddened by the amount of money, attention, and support that WHS has gotten for these inhumane practices,” the final paragraph of the mutual aid letter reads. The signatories then urge the City Council to invest in public restrooms, hygiene stations, and “housing-first” solutions — housing that accepts formerly homeless people without requirements such as sobriety.

The WHS board of directors responded with its own missive, calling the accusations in the mutual aid letter false while stating that they believe the two groups have similar goals but different approaches.

“We want a better situation for our fellow humans who are unhoused,” the WHS letter reads. “We put a lot of effort in working towards better arrangements for people living outside and an environment with less litter.”

Each letter states that both sides have made overtures to each other with little to no success.

The groups have clashed since the beginning of 2021, both online and in person. Two public conflicts that received social media and TV news attention took place during the City of Seattle’s March 3 sweep of Denny Park and a March 7 incident at Daejeon Park on Beacon Hill. During the March 7 incident, mutual aid supporters shot video of a WHS volunteer clearly opening and entering a homeless person’s tent while they were not present.

That conflict drew the eye of Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents District 2, where Daejeon Park is located. Morales and her staff expressed concern that some WHS volunteers may have removed belongings without permission.

“If this happened to a housed person, this would be considered burglary,” Morales wrote on social media, going on to say that a “tough love” approach toward homelessness is traumatizing and harmful.

Suarez says that her organization is there to help people experiencing homelessness by picking up trash at locations such as parks, schoolyards, and community centers as well as performing limited outreach to those living in certain encampments. WHS volunteers have helped roughly 30 people connect with shelter, housing, tiny homes, transitional shelter, and other forms of services, Suarez said in an interview with the Emerald. She has also disavowed the actions of the volunteer at Daejeon Park, who has since apologized on social media.

Andrea Suarez, leader of the volunteer group, We Heart Seattle, poses with a resident of a camp near Denny Park and holds a flyer critical of her efforts. Mutual aid organizations have questioned the effectiveness and ethics of her group’s approach to cleaning up trash at encampments. (Photo: Ashley Archibald)

Suarez also highlighted verbal abuse and harassment of WHS volunteers by protesters and the postering of electrical poles with flyers featuring her photo that read “Not Wanted.”

Her opponents — many of whom gather in a private Facebook group centered around supporting homeless people — say that Suarez and her fellow volunteers advocate abusive practices and that their cleanups involve not only picking up trash but invading encampments and destroying homes without permission. Activists have attended We Heart Seattle “litter picks” to confront the group and ensure that personal property and essential items remain undisturbed. One video (readers will need to scroll down below the first video on Twitter to see it) appears to show a protester trying to remove a mattress from the back of a truck, which some WHS volunteers had planned to take to the dump.

At a litter pick outside Denny Park on March 13, only two people opposed to WHS’s efforts came to observe the events. The location of the cleanup, originally set for an encampment at Bitter Lake in North Seattle, had changed the night before — one would-be volunteer wasn’t aware of the location change and came, trash pincher in hand, before discovering the switch in plans and going home.

Outside of Denny Park, a man dressed in black, his face obscured by a black gaiter, identified himself as “Freeman.” He said that he’d been out of state at a job training program and had only recently returned, but that he’d been following the progression of WHS online for the preceding months.

Freeman had heard of the volunteer entering the tent and other criticisms of Suarez, but he said that the Saturday cleanup — directed by two camp residents named Isaiah John and True — seemed above board.

“As long as they’re doing it this way, taking a backseat to the people who live here” there didn’t seem to be an issue, Freeman said.

When WHS did its first cleanups at Denny Park, where a large encampment had formed, Suarez was shocked.

“I found myself in Denny Park every day,” Suarez told the Emerald. “Our homeless crisis wasn’t something I’d personally ever paid attention to.”

Suarez later said she’d previously ignored homeless issues because she believed it was the role of local government to solve the problem. But as she spent more time visiting Denny Park, Suarez decided to move beyond picking up litter to a form of outreach.

Her turning point came on Dec. 30 when a man in crisis asked to borrow her cell phone to call for help. Suarez ended up driving him to Valley Cities behavioral health and, when he got out of the program, connected the man with his family so he could make it to his father’s funeral. The man’s family would only let him come home if he was no longer using substances, Suarez indicated in a follow-up email.

“Then and there I would like to go on record being boldly and courageously an outreach provider, new to the game, new to the long list of service providers that are out there,” Suarez said to the Emerald.

In a January interview on the Jason Rantz Show, Suarez put the genesis of WHS differently:

“I was just walking through downtown, and the only folks that were visible in society were drug addicts, drug dealers, people mentally ill roaming the streets, unclothed, filthy. … I know not everybody that’s homeless is a drug user, but particularly in the inner city parks where I had been frequenting the most was, Denny Park in particular,” Suarez said. “The amount of trash and needles in the park, just because society wasn’t using the park, staying home, doing the right thing. This happened very, very quickly in our city.”

Suarez has apologized for statements made in the early days of WHS. 

WHS now has its own host of supporters on Facebook, who, when they’re visiting encampments, wear a uniform of reflective vests and sometimes facemasks with an emoji heart printed on them.

Suarez and her organization’s work wasn’t immediately alarming, said Sandi Olson, a volunteer who provides mutual aid to the unsheltered. Olson, like Suarez, became involved supporting homeless people without an official organization behind her and little direct experience. She first began at the encampment in Cal Anderson Park when someone told her they needed water to weather the summer heat. One Costco run then became a repeated affair, with Olson collecting requests and fulfilling them as quickly as she could, often with the help of her neighborhood Buy Nothing group.

A flyer critical of Andrea Suarez and her group, We Heart Seattle, in a tiny library in Madrona. Mutual aid organizations and some City Council members have questioned the group’s approach to trash cleanup at homeless encampments. (Photo: Polly Jirkovsky)

Olson describes WHS’s and Suarez’s efforts as part of a “white savior complex” that involves going into encampments to help but with video cameras and other publicity in tow and no capacity to receive criticism. 

“I fear she is creating a pathway to engagement with these encampments, but she’s doing it in a way that, at its core, ends up being harmful because she’s only offering to clean up with something in return,” Olson said. “It’s still an exchange of services.”

There is a divide between the way that WHS and Suarez perceive their efforts and the way others receive them.

One example took place in January at Miller Park, located on Capitol Hill. A community kitchen was cooking cheeseburgers for campers who ring an Astroturf playfield where on bright, sunny days other community members come to jog or play with their dogs.

This was the first time Sam, a park resident, recalls meeting Suarez, although she and her litter collection teams have been back many times since. Suarez approached and struck up a conversation with the people at the cheeseburger stand.

Accounts of what came next diverge.

Sam recalls Suarez recommending that people pick up a bag of garbage in exchange for a burger.

“Now granted, we already had something set up for that that didn’t make the people who shouldn’t have to work for their food, work for their food,” Sam said. She also recalls Suarez comparing the campers to “rats and dogs.”

The trash allegation is false, Suarez said.

“I was like, ‘Can you guys make trash a part of your services? Trash pickup?’ That’s it, that’s all I said,” Suarez said. “And that went viral. That went viral so fast, that Andrea makes people pick up trash to get a hamburger.”

As to the animal comparisons, Suarez mentioned she had recently gotten a new puppy.

“And I said people, creatures thrive when they have empowerment, when there’s accountability,” Suarez said. “I don’t understand why you wouldn’t treat people experiencing homelessness … give them the tools. Empower them. And that went viral.”

Suarez then described the picture that people in the mutual aid community paint of her: “‘Andrea thinks that people must pick up trash to get food, a basic need, and [she] treats people like dogs.’” 

Suarez knows how her statements have come off, and says that she has apologized for her early missteps.

Joseph Sanden was leading the community kitchen at that moment in Miller Park. The 50-year-old anarchist recalled the first conversation he had with Suarez and described it as defensive, especially when the topic of the housing first model — in which people with substance use and other problems are admitted into housing immediately rather than being forced to become sober as a precondition to shelter — came up. But the next time they spoke, he felt her outlook had changed.

“For me, it seems like someone with no street experience decided they wanted to help and made a bunch of mistakes,” Sanden said. “If you don’t understand the streets and you come in from a very sheltered life, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes.”

Suarez has also done some people good, Sanden noted. 

For instance, Patrick Burnite, a chef who lost his job during the pandemic and then his housing, was living at Miller Park and working in the community kitchen at the time. He remembers Suarez came one day looking for another park resident to help them get into rehab but couldn’t find them, and the two got to talking.

It was Suarez who personally drove Burnite down to Portland, Oregon to enter the Bybee Lake Hope Center. The center, which provides housing to those referred there, is located in a complex that was originally intended to become a prison. Bybee Lake Hope Center requires sobriety and costs each resident $250 per month, conditions that are the opposite of the  “housing first” approach. WHS sponsored Burnite’s first month in the program.

It doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for him, Burnite said. He says he plans on starting his own group, We Heart Portland, modeled after the original Seattle flagship group.

All people create waste, but disposal of that waste for housed people is built into the city’s infrastructure.  

Two official Seattle programs attempt to do the same for homeless encampments.

The Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) “purple bag” program drops off purple trash bags at unsanctioned homeless encampments in locations throughout the city. As a pilot program in 2016, it served roughly 10 sites, later growing to 17. In response to an increase in trash during the pandemic, Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed and ultimately implemented the Clean Cities Initiative, which involved doubling the number of purple bag sites and instituting “clean teams” for rapid response to sites with garbage issues. The city also created Community Litter routes providing twice-weekly service to various locations across the city.

In the second week of March, the Clean Cities program removed 151,875 pounds of garbage from litter routes, encampments, two park cleanups, and 58 blocks of trash pickup, according to SPU.

On March 11, Sam, the resident of the Miller Park encampment, helped a team load trashed items, including a couple of flattened tents, into the back of a garbage truck. An occasional rat scurried across 21st Avenue East, one chased out by a worker with trash pinchers.

After the cleanup, Sam went to a nearby unmarked truck filled with fresh fruits and prepared foods, filling a box and taking it back to her tent.

Even before her life became unstable, Miller Park had been dear to her heart, Sam said. She enjoys hanging out on the bleachers when people play sports on the nearby pitch and feels a sense of camaraderie in a time where the pandemic has isolated so many people.

It also provides her safety.

“Why do you think a lot of us choose to be in tents, even though there are a lot of shelters open?” Sam said. “Shelters aren’t safe. If you’ve ever been to one, you know. There’s rampant theft, sexual assault, and battery all the time. They’re not good places.”

“At least in a tent you can choose who you live next to,” she said.

Sam appreciates the litter pickups organized by WHS to a degree, but also feels that there’s a subtext behind the group when it urges her to get into shelter or to accept one program or another rather than seek stable housing: The subtext is that she shouldn’t be there.

“I don’t want to believe the worst, but right now, I can’t believe the best,” Sam said.

Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News and a freelance journalist with previous work in the Santa Monica Daily Press and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development, and you can find it in the South Seattle Emerald, KNKX, and the Urbanist.

Featured Image: Volunteers from the group We Heart Seattle pick up trash at an encampment for those without permanent shelter near Denny Park. (Photo: Ashley Archibald)

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