Seattle is a compassionate city willing to invest in solutions that help people living outside. Homelessness and human service spending in the city’s 2021 budget topped $218 million.
In exchange, City Hall should promise residents that once outreach workers connect with people living in parks and those public areas are cleared of tents, new encampments will not take root.
The hamster-wheel effect of continuous camping in parks — still illegal in the city — heightens cynicism that this problem can ever be fixed and that no public investment will be enough to restore the city’s exquisite amenities for all to enjoy.
Seattle Parks and Recreation officials have quietly instituted such a “clear and hold” practice. While there have been some notable exceptions, the agency should be commended for pursuing the right strategy.
Last month, Parks crews finally cleared the last detritus from City Hall Park and around $15 million in public funds helped the 70 or so people living in tents move on to better arrangements. But King County Superior Court judges who had dealt with related disruptions in the nearby courthouse had one crucial question.
“Once it opens up, what’s to prevent the scenario from returning to the status quo, because it’s an easy place to set up tents and for people to shelter?” the court’s chief criminal judge, Sean O’Donnell, asked the Metropolitan King County Council.
Workers at the King County Courthouse, just north of City Hall Park, were so concerned about public safety surrounding the encampment they staged a protest and demanded greater protection from assaults and other threatening behavior. Before the park was cleared, judges had asked for it to be immediately shut down.
In answer to Judge O’Donnell’s question, Parks spokesperson Rachel Schulkin said, “As with previous encampment removals, any new camping is not permitted and tents are removed.”
The city has conducted more than 30 encampment removals with this policy, she said. For example, Miller Playfield, Cal Anderson, Williams Place and Denny Park have returned to being used fully as parks.
After outreach workers make meaningful offers of shelter and remove an encampment, Parks staff quickly identify any new tents that pop up. Within a day or two, staff let people know that they cannot camp in the park, and people largely comply, said Schulkin.
There have been at least two exceptions to this policy: University Playground and Ballard Commons Park. In those locations, encampments returned after intensive outreach efforts.
The Ballard Commons Park encampment was removed in 2020, and outreach workers are currently working on a new plan, said Schulkin. At University Playground, no camping signs were posted Aug. 30 and remaining belongings were expected to be removed Wednesday.
These setbacks underscore the need for effective enforcement of no-camping rules protection in parks and green spaces after outreach workers have helped people experiencing homelessness find more stable arrangements.
Park by park, local authorities should align resources to get people inside and return Seattle’s open spaces back to public use.
Just as important, this means ensuring that once an investment in outreach and housing has been made, there is no backsliding to the unacceptable status quo.