Andrea Suarez, right, founder of volunteer trash cleanup group We Heart Seattle, hugs Danielle Wilfert in MacLean Park Sunday near Seattle’s Northeast Queen Anne Greenbelt on July 18, 2021. Wilfert had been living in the park until Suarez helped her find housing. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

At the top of the Northeast Queen Anne Greenbelt above Aurora Avenue, the MacLean Park trail winds down and away from Taylor Avenue. On a recent Sunday morning, about 50 volunteers turned out to clean this steep Seattle oasis, where the blacktop ends and blackberry bramble gives way to a wooded hillside path.

Armed with barbecue tongs, trash pincers, garden rakes and their own gloved hands, they plucked trash from a half-dozen abandoned encampments and stuffed it into black garbage bags, adding to the hundreds already lining the trail like sentries. Andrea Suarez, wearing a flowered ball cap, gardening gloves and a black vest, filled me in.

She started We Heart Seattle last fall, inspired by the volunteers who turned out to clean up after May’s downtown demonstrations and tired of standing by while trash piled up in city parks. Since then, her mission has expanded to help the people she meets at encampments who want help finding a job or a place to stay, getting vaccinated or getting sober. She’s not a social worker, but she’s passionate, and she’s tapped into something potentially huge.

“I’ve seen coyotes in here, I’ve seen bunnies,” she said, talking about the greenbelt. She’s interrupted by a pair of volunteers who have found a glass pipe and a baggie of white crystals.

“OK,” she says, unfazed, and looks around for a container. “Let’s dispose of the drugs.”

Hypodermic needles were  among the items cleaned up by We Heart Seattle volunteers at Northeast Queen Anne Greenbelt on Sunday, July 18, 2021. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Since last September, Suarez has organized regular garbage cleanups at Seattle parks like MacLean. By her count, she and her crews have cleared away more than 150,000 pounds of trash. Along the way, she’s helped dozens of unsheltered people find room indoors and attracted impassioned critics. On this sunny Sunday, it’s hard to see her as the “vile, hateful husk of a human being” that someone recently called her on Twitter. Suarez prefers to think of herself as a volunteer. A citizen at large. She tells me, “I’m the girl next door.”

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Suarez’s critics say she prioritizes trash over people. They say her group’s volunteers haven’t always been respectful enough to those living in the parks. Conservative media personalities like Jason Rantz and John Carlson have gleefully held her up as a crusader against ineffectual progressive government, which doesn’t help.

The online echo chamber has predictably driven her supporters and detractors into separate corners. When they cross paths at encampments, it’s sometimes led to heated verbal exchanges. But the two critics I talked to seemed heartfelt and reasonable over the phone.

“When I was a teenager, a lot of my friends were street kids and kids who were homeless,” Alycia Ramirez told me. “It’s always been something that’s been personal to me.”

Ramirez is the co-founder of Project Solidarity, one of many informal groups trying to support unhoused city residents by offering “mutual aid.” In separate interviews, she and Aidan Carroll, who is a member of the direct-democracy group the Cooperative Assembly of Cascadia, said they’ve tried raising their concerns with Suarez, but she didn’t seem to listen. I wish the two factions would give each other a bit of grace and find a sliver of common ground.

Suarez, whose day job is in sales for a logistics company, is definitely great at drumming up interest. She holds her phone in front of her, taking a video and giving shout-outs as volunteers attack the trash.

“We might get this done today,” she says, clearly impressed.

The volunteers include a handful of people from the neighborhood, a man who has been living in a tent at the trailhead, volunteers from Ballard, Green Lake, Greenwood, West Seattle, and more than a half-dozen members of the Seattle Latino Hiking Club. Suarez’s parents are visiting from Oregon, and she’s brought them along. They’ve all turned out for different reasons but with a deep desire to do something.

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Queen Anne Community Council board member Paula Mueller helped publicize the cleanup. She said neighbors used to walk the trail a lot, and she wants to make it usable again. Mary Cole grew up in the neighborhood. Her stepson’s older sister died in a different encampment in February 2019. Lisa Power is a small-business owner who started a similar group called Tidy Uptown. Craig Thompson lives on the northern tip of Beacon Hill. For years, he’s been doing environmental restoration in the Jungle, one of the city’s oldest encampments on the hill’s western slope.

We Heart Seattle volunteers walks past bags of trash they had collected, but which had mysteriously been set afire, in Seattle’s Northeast Queen Anne Greenbelt Sunday on July 18, 2021. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

The Seattle Latino Hiking Club has committed to monthly cleanups, and is inviting other hiking and outdoor groups to join its members. Suarez’s call for everyday people to take responsibility for what is happening in their backyard is clearly resonating. People are tired of wringing their hands and waiting for the city and other formal groups work on infrastructure like affordable housing and services. Like mutual-aid groups, We Heart Seattle gives them a chance to help.

It’s not the whole solution, but it doesn’t have to be. At the end of the day, eliminating homelessness is going to be about connecting with people. Might as well start in your own backyard.

It’s not the whole solution, but it doesn’t have to be. At the end of the day, eliminating homelessness is going to be about connecting with people. There’s no single right way to do that. But if small, committed groups take up the challenge — listening, learning from and supporting each other instead of pointing fingers — we might actually get it done.