(thepostmillennial)During the ongoing pandemic, Seattle city parks became homeless encampments. When residents complained that they were unable to use the parks because they were occupied, the City ignored them. Now it has come to light that Seattle’s Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered the homeless encampments to not be disturbed.
Emails from Seattle employees obtained by The Post Millennial showed that in public parks “…(homeless) encampments (by order of the mayor) may not be removed; and, for crime, call SPD.”
The email continues “During the COVID-19 pandemic, the City has made the decision to allow unhoused persons to shelter in place.”
Encampments have grown exponentially in Seattle since the beginning of the epidemic, with many wondering why they were not being cleared, since camping in parks is illegal in the city limits.
The email was written in reference to a growing homeless encampment in Williams Park that was affecting nearby residents who emailed friends in the city to try and help them. “…It has become over run with a huge homeless encampment and is causing serious disruption for the residents of our building (people breaking through our gates, defecating, using drugs, sleeping on our property etc.)… it’s becoming a huge issue that will only get better when folks are forced to move out of that park.”
The documents included emails from residents, businesses and community organizations across Seattle, begging the city to deal with the encampments in parks. One frustrated resident even said regarding the homeless in Julia Lee’s Park in Madison Valley “As a last resort, we plan to set up outdoor speakers around the fence of our house and play ‘Baby Shark’ over the entire weekend starting Friday evening.”
When asked for comment the Mayor’s office replied that “No such removals will occur during the public health emergency unless needed for an extreme circumstance that presents a significant barrier to accessibility of city streets and sidewalks, and is an extraordinary public safety hazard that puts people living unsheltered or others at risks. Individuals in all of these cases will be offered shelter.”
Yet emails show claim there are regularly “…significant barrier(s) to accessibility of city streets and sidewalks” and “…extraordinary public safety hazard that puts people living unsheltered or others at risks.”
Regarding Albert Davis Park one person said “…there are needles at the park in the sidewalk and across the street this is a public health danger and it is just a matter of time before someone gets hurt by accidentally stepping on a used needle.”
An email regarding Albert Davis park said “Twice in the last 5 days we were unable to access our mailboxes due to the encampment spilling over the sidewalk and the mailboxes being totally blocked. It also NEVER feels comfortable to go to the mail boxes due to the situation with COVID and having that many people so close together not wearing masks. How is it we can’t have more than 5 people together but there can be that many people at the park.”
Socially distanced park use was encouraged by elected officials as a safe activity during the pandemic but residents found the parks unsafe when they attempted to go.
The Mayor’s office cited CDC guidelines for dealing with the homeless during the pandemic but appeared to ignore the sections encouraging that housing be found in deference to the sections regarding leaving people where they are.
Yet multiple emails claim that campers are not social distancing. The mayor’s office claims that “The City also deployed an unprecedented number of new hygiene and shower trailers” yet most of the parks do not have special hygienic facilities and the city appears to be counting public park restrooms which do not have sanitizer and are often in a poor state of repair.
Despite the claims of sanitation and hygiene, residents near Roanoke Park tell a different story “City staff certainly must be aware that campers are using the bushes in this and other parks as their toilets, as well as sleeping there. What plans does the city have to clean up the feces and toilet paper that are left? Will the park staff be directed to clean that up? Will the team? Does the city expect neighbors to clean up after campers?”
The city even acknowledges in their own emails that they doubt that their words will allay citizen concerns. In a communication regarding Gasworks Park, city employees wrote “…we should be clear that SP(U) is picking up the garbage, which is really all that we are permitted to do during this time. However, it will not satisfy anyone.”
Those efforts appear to be falling short “Just in the last 5 days we were threatened twice once when we asked someone trespassing down our driveway if we could help them and once when we were out front trying to pick up the excess garbage – the garbage that flows over from the dumpster all the garbage that people just throw everywhere… not to mention all the garbage from cars that come to buy/sell drugs at the park.
“We have picked up excess garbage on more than 2 occasions in the last 5 days as well… currently there are bottles, broken glass in the street and the above mentioned needles. The sidewalk was also blocked from use on at least 2 separate occasions that we saw—so my disabled husband and everyone else has to walk in the street.”
Crime in the parks is an ongoing concern for residents since the City Council defunded the Navigation Team which cleared encampments. One of the most complained about locations was Cal Anderson Park which was at the Center of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. “In the last 5 days we…have been woken up between the hours of 2:00 – 5:00 am on 4 different occasions due to fighting, loud music, gunshots or explosive not sure which and screaming.”
Even city officials admit being caught off guard by the moves to defund the police and the Navigation Team and were concerned about their safety. “Will and I will do our best to ensure staff are reminded to leave the area if they are encountered with aggressive or abusive behaviors. We did already have some conversations with Joey and Donna on ‘what ifs’ but did not come up with an action plan. Looks like we might have to come up with a special training for all staff (getting a lot of complaints from grounds staff as well). It would most likely be a refresher to our Personal Safety class in combination with our Bloodborne Pathogens class.”
Campers destroyed play structures established by community members. “The space was installed with private funding after multiple years of coordination between the community and the City. The community had been asking for assistance for dangerous and threatening behavior by individuals since April. This plea was not answered, and has resulted in a camper setting a fire and destroying the play structure and ground covering and will require a complete replacement.”
The anger and frequency of communications from constituents led city officials to stop responding in some cases. In an email regarding Cal Anderson Park in August officials wrote “Rachel, you were right: it was a mistake to have answered. No further response unless you tell me otherwise. Laurie”
Though the Mayor and council have passed a 2021 budget calling for “…hundreds of new spaces for shelter and housing options as well as more resources to address litter and garbage” they told The Post Millennial that it will take time to implement. “Standing these types of resources up takes planning, logistics, community engagement, and staffing considerations.”
City officials added in another exchange that form letters are the only responses Seattlites may see going forward “Karen, all we can do is (1) explain about the shelter-in-place order and (2) tell people to call 911 if they witness violent crime or are physically threatened.”