by Luke Brennan
According to Public Health – Seattle & King County, more than 68% of the county is now fully vaccinated. This news, along with warmer weather and the CDC’s update that fully vaccinated people can start to safely resume pre-pandemic activities, has encouraged many to head to parks and sports fields. But for the unhoused, the return to normalcy brings precarity as the City of Seattle has resumed its controversial sweeps of homeless encampments.
As the pandemic has eased this year, some parents and community members made complaints to city officials concerning encampments in Seattle parks. This was the case at Gilman Park, where one parent reported that her child had received threatening comments from a homeless man who was living in the dugout. Gilman Park was swept on April 30, with 46 people offered referrals for alternative shelter in hotels or tiny villages by the city’s HOPE team.
In late April, a similar sweep occurred at Miller Park in Capitol Hill. City officials removed a large encampment of unhoused residents, stating that their presence in the park prevented local children from using the sports complex. And in May, Ari Robin McKenna reported for the Emerald on the growing conflict between the City and Seattle Public Schools over what to do about an encampment near Broadview Thompson K–8 school. In June, the City swept an encampment in Olga Park in Ravenna, despite efforts by neighbors to find alternatives to forcible displacement.
In the past two months, the City has removed other encampments around Seattle, with a large number of sweeps centering on unhoused populations living downtown. The map below details some of the recent sweeps.
The issue of increased street sweeps coincides with a rise in “informal evictions,” which can lead to more people living unhoused. Researchers from the University of Washington have found that some tenants receive texts, emails, or verbal requests asking them to leave their apartments, despite the state’s moratorium on evictions during the pandemic. In some cases, tenants have simply been locked out of their apartments, with their possessions removed from the buildings. Researchers say that these informal evictions disproportionately affect BIPOC communities, on top of the other negative inequities experienced during the pandemic.
Some who are unhoused do not have a permanent campsite every night. Instead, many stay wherever they can, moving around from park to park to avoid negative reactions from the community.
Tom sits on a picnic bench at Rainier Playfield, where six people were removed from their encampment in a dugout on April 6.
He chooses to sleep in South Seattle because there’s more space to spread out. “I stay down here mostly, wherever I can find a spot. It’s just too congested [downtown]. There’s homeless people everywhere.”
One of Tom’s main concerns is finding a place where he can use a bathroom reliably.
“Say I have to take a leak: Where am I going to go? Restaurants, they don’t just let you use their bathroom.”
Another man sits on the bleachers, facing the playfields. “I’m homeless,” he says. “I’m not from here.” Unlike Tom, he will not sleep in South Seattle tonight. “I may stay in Pioneer Square. They have shelter there.” Pioneer Square is four miles from Rainier Playfield.
Not all community members are opposed to people setting up camp in Seattle’s parks. Outside of Rainier Playfield, Marika Yaplee gets ready to coach softball practice.
“We just ask if we can have the space, and people are generally really nice about moving their things so we could use the field,” says Yaplee. “People understand that we have the fields reserved. We came to practice.”
People camping in the park is nothing new for Yaplee, who went to high school in the area.
“I went to Franklin for four years. We never really had a problem with people camping out.”
Some people living on the street avoid being moved from their encampments by maintaining positive relationships with the community.
Two tents were left at University Park, which was swept by the HOPE team in March. A woman staying at one of the remaining campsites said that she helps with cleaning the park, and they leave her alone.
Nearby, David and his friend wait for the bus.
“No, we don’t stay around here,” says David, looking over at the tents set up by I-5. He and his friend are staying behind a church west of I-5.
“The pastor lets us stay there. We’ve been there for six months or so,” David says. “Every once in a while he’ll tell us to get up: ‘Okay let’s get things moving!’ But most of the time he’ll just let us sleep and walk right between us. I hear the door beep.”
Others are not as lucky. Across I-5, a man holds a sign asking for money. He lives out of his car and stays the night wherever he can. “Some people will come out and say ‘Hey, this is my house, you can’t park here.’”
Ballard Commons Remains a Popular Campground
More than 15 campsites line the sidewalks of Ballard Commons. Across the street, many also take shelter under the roof of the library.
Dcon sits next door to a man who goes by Mr. President, who has been staying in Ballard Commons for about a year. Before then, at the beginning of the pandemic, he says he was asked by city officials to move from his campsite: “Oh I was swept off just like everybody else.”
Mr. President expressed concern about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s policy of moving encampments during the pandemic. In March of 2020, the city issued a statement that it would only remove homeless encampments if absolutely necessary, i.e., if the encampments were obstructions to pedestrians. Street sweeps continued, however, amid skepticism as to whether or not they were justified under the city’s COVID-19 guidelines.
“You’ve got a governor that tells the mayor that everyone needs to shelter in place. Then, they come and tell us to move along. Where are we supposed to go? We’ve got to go somewhere.”
“They’re not gonna move us. No way,” says Mr. President. He is not worried that the City will sweep Ballard Commons. “They just put in two more Porta-Potties.”
Jacob M. stays nearby underneath the roof of the Ballard Library. “That’s where I go when it rains,” he says.
In the past, Jacob has been offered a spot in a hotel room, and he would prefer to be inside rather than by the library. “They come around and sign you up. I got a spot, but what they do is they put you in line. You’re in limbo.”
Securing a room in a hotel isn’t always easy, according to Jacob. “There’s hundreds of homeless people, there’s just not enough space … I’d rather be in a hotel. Somebody else got my spot.”
Looking around all the tents in Ballard Commons, Jacob says, “They would never let us do this normally, it’s the pandemic. You don’t want to go through this,” he adds. “Nobody wants to go through this.”
Finding Common Ground
“The church people? They’ve got me,” says Aaron after making plans with a community organizer to meet at 10 a.m. the next morning.
Aaron believes there is a way for people living on the street to live as a part of the community. He hopes the housed and the unhoused can work together to make a plan that works for everyone.
“There’s got to be a solution. If everybody came together and worked something out, you know? Something where we’re not in your area; we’re in our own space. Somewhere we can set up real nice.”
Aaron argued that some people show more concern towards their pets than they do to people living in parks.
“If your dogs can use this park, then what about me? Your dog comes in, he’s going to pee everywhere. And then you’re asking me to leave? What’s that about?”
Kamaria Hightower, a spokesperson for Mayor Durkan, told the Emerald via email in response to criticism of continued sweeps, “ As reported by many outlets over the past year, throughout the pandemic the City halted encampment removals except in the instance of extreme public health and public safety challenges. To that end, encampment removals have continued in that instance.”
No one deserves to have their belongings taken or destroyed. As Seattle begins to return to life before quarantine, the city needs to determine a long-term solution to support its citizens who are unhoused. Moving homeless encampments from park to park or street to street or even from hotel to hotel may appease some community complaints; however, people who are unhoused have a right to a safe and reliable sleeping space.
Editors’ Note: Some names were changed or omitted for privacy.
Luke Brennan is a writer and software developer originally from Pittsburgh. He believes in promoting stories and voices that are not typically represented in the media. His work can be found at https://lukejhnbrnnn.medium.com/.
📸 Featured Image: No camping signs line the fence at Gilman Park. As the COVID-19 pandemic has eased in King County, the City of Seattle is stepping up sweeps of homeless encampments. (Photo: Luke Brennan)
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