by Erica C. Barnett
(This article previously appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement)
During an often rowdy public forum in the cafeteria of Broadview-Thomson K-8 school last week, Seattle Public Schools Deputy Director Rob Gannon said the school district is working slowly toward a plan for moving more than 50 unsheltered people off school district-owned property behind the North Seattle school. The City of Seattle has refused to assist the school district in sheltering or housing people living on the property, and the district has turned to a small nonprofit called Anything Helps with the goal of getting everyone off the site by September.
“We got caught in a difficult situation and … with a rather large encampment and no resources to be able to address how to return that area to its original intended purpose or how to respond to the needs of the people living on that property,” Gannon said. “For the past two months, we have been actively seeking partners to help us address that situation, and only recently have we started to find traction to begin to help people move off that property.”
Emails from City officials show the City knew that people would move onto school property from the nearby Bitter Lake Playfield, which was previously the site of a small encampment, if the City made them leave the park.
Although the school district property is directly adjacent to city-owned Bitter Lake Playfield and has historically been maintained by the Parks Department, Mayor Jenny Durkan has said that Seattle bears no responsibility for the encampment because it isn’t on City property. In May, Durkan suggested that if the chronically underfunded district wants the encampment gone, it should “stand up” its own human services system.
Durkan has repeatedly suggested that people living behind the elementary school made a conscious decision to move away from property owned by the City, and have therefore chosen to be beyond the City’s help. But emails from city officials obtained through a records request show the City knew that people would move onto school property from the nearby Bitter Lake Playfield, which was previously the site of a small encampment, if the City made them leave the park.
In an email on July 8, 2020, for example, a recreation specialist with the City’s Parks Department told a school facilities staffer that the department would be removing and replacing lights in the park and would be asking “several campers in the area” to “relocate during construction.” Those “campers,” the parks staffer wrote, “may move elsewhere or around the SW corner of Bitter Lake Lake which I understand is SPS property with Broadview Thompson [sic] School up the hill to the west. We never know what we will get when requesting a move of their ‘home.’”
Liza Rankin, the school board director for North Seattle, said that “seeing these communications now from a year ago, it’s really frustrating to know that had there been a prompt and appropriate response instead of sweeping people from the park at that point — offering services or shelter or even just an alternative location — this whole thing could have been avoided.”
After the City told the people living at the playfield that they had to leave, they did exactly what the City predicted, setting up their tents on the school district property a few feet away. “As we’ve seen where other encampments have sprung up, it’s not random,” Rankin said. “People are setting up tents where there’s a community center nearby, where there’s transportation nearby, where there’s other resources.” If the City hadn’t “shooed away” people camping on park property, or if they’d responded to the encampment behind the school when it was small, Rankin continued, “I think there would still be an encampment at Bitter Lake — I just think it would probably be by the community center and not next to the school.”
Once people moved their tents from the park to the area behind the school, the encampment began to grow, and residents began writing to the school district asking them to remove it. In response, district officials asked the mayor’s office what to do. Their response: Ask the Seattle Police Department. SPD’s response: Ask the Mayor’s Office, or the Human Services Department. Last year, in response to the City Council’s budget action disbanding the encampment-sweeping Navigation Team, HSD stopped actively removing encampments, handing that responsibility over to Parks. And Parks, of course, has said they have no control over district property.
While City officials passed the buck, the encampment continued to grow. And by May, Durkan’s position had calcified: If the school district wanted the encampment gone, they were on their own. “The school district needs to step up, and we are there to help and assist them, but they cannot shirk their obligations and duties for school properties,” Durkan said on May 27. The district, as a “a billion-dollar organization with funds and resources,” ought to be able to “stand up its own process” for assisting and moving encampment residents, she added.
Rankin, who was the target of significant vitriol at last week’s public forum, said she found it “frustrating and disappointing to see that school district personnel were being responsive and proactive in trying to work with the City and didn’t get anywhere.”
PubliCola sent several questions to the Parks Department and Durkan’s office about their reasons for not addressing the encampment behind Broadview-Thomson last year. Parks responded to just one of our questions on the record, confirming that the department didn’t tell people to move their tents to school property, but were aware that this was a possibility.
Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.
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