More than a year after a sprawling encampment took over Seattle’s City Hall Park, all the tents are gone. Most of the people — about 70 — who used to call the place home are now in shelters, tiny houses and hotel rooms. Only a handful declined help and moved elsewhere.
Outreach workers with the JustCARE partnership talked to the park’s residents, gained their trust and helped them into interim housing. As of Friday, all that was left of the Pioneer Square neighborhood park was bare dirt and detritus as city workers began the cleanup process.
Clearing City Hall Park never should have taken this long.
Inaction by officials allowed the situation at the city-run park, south of the King County Courthouse, to devolve into an active threat against public safety. That neglect endangered the lives of passersby, county workers and jurors, as well as those living in the encampment themselves.
In at long last finding the will to act — decisively and compassionately — officials have shown they can and must reclaim public spaces for everyone to enjoy.
City Hall Park now is closed for repairs and will likely remain so as part of ongoing discussions with affected communities on what the space will look like once it reopens. The park’s proximity to the courthouse makes it a special place and a symbol of the rule of law, said Mayor Jenny Durkan.
“We have to take the time to make sure that we protect that,” she said. “That means making sure that people view it themselves as a place that they can be proud of.”
That pride must lead decision makers to ignore proposals for the park to become anything other than a public space. It must also mark the beginning of a sustained effort to keep the city’s parks and green belts clear of encampments.
That cannot happen overnight, as simply pushing the homeless out is not a solution. But neither is allowing a large encampment to force the closure of the spray park in Ballard Commons, for example, or ignoring the growing tent and RV camps at Green Lake Park.
Using the JustCARE partnership model, which combines housing with wraparound services, is highly effective, according to a University of Washington study, but funding questions and the lack of permanent housing options remain difficult challenges.
The city and King County committed $15 million to fund JustCARE for a year and clear out City Hall Park. While Durkan is right in calling it a unique piece of real estate, it is no more special than any neighborhood park where anyone can find respite on a shady bench or take their kids to play.
Public parks belong to everyone. It’s time the city took that seriously.