Ten months ago, Melissa Meier and her husband, Dean Oquist, moved to Edmonds. They sold their home of 27 years in Seattle’s Phinney Ridge.
“I loved living in this area. I walked around Green Lake three times a week. I met with friends for walks and rowed in the Green Lake crew team for a season,” Meier remembers.
For the couple, it all began changing during the pandemic, as Seattle’s homelessness crisis pushed ever more visibly into this neighborhood, as it did around the city.
As of Nov. 18, the count from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office was 30 tents at Green Lake and a row of 11 RVs and cars and vans in encampments along the west side of the lake. The latter is apparently a fluctuating number. A video that same day showed 19 vehicles.
From a car on Aurora Avenue North or the Aurora underpass at North 63rd Street, the rows and clusters of tents and RVs still startle.
Seattle’s homelessness crisis has been conspicuous for some time in parks, outside storefronts and on blocklong stretches of sidewalk, with people living in tents and sleeping bags, often among piles of debris. It has left many neighbors in nearby houses pained by the human suffering and frustrated that City Hall isn’t solving the problem now.
Nearby, on the Woodland Park hillside, the count from Durkan’s office was 60 tents and “structures,” near the lawn bowling club and picnic shelters. Before the pandemic, driving north on Aurora, the view on some occasions had been of players of the easygoing sport.
Citing the encampments, cross country events with thousands of participants at Lower Woodland Park this year had to find other locations or be canceled.
For Meier, an art teacher, it’s all been too much, as it has been for many Seattleites.
Bruce Harrell won the mayor’s race by more than 17 percentage points, one of the largest margins in the last two decades. A promise he often repeated was that he would “clean up our parks and sidewalks.”
Says Meier, “The change at Green Lake has broken my heart. This is not my Seattle anymore. Garages are rummaged through. Garbage is tossed on the sidewalks. You have to be careful to sidestep needles. I miss my old Seattle.”
Meier once was part of a group of volunteers at her church who worked at a women’s shelter. She understands many living in the park suffer from not just poverty but also mental health problems and addiction.
“I am not unfeeling or without compassion,” she says. “But Seattle’s hands-off approach, and let whoever, and whatever, happen in the parks, has ruined the city.”
The couple also owns a rental home on Phinney Ridge, which they’re considering selling because of what they say are onerous city rental regulations, and because of the change in Green Lake.
Erich Eipert, a board member of the Woodland Park Lawn Bowling Club, says the club lost its main source of income from rentals to groups wanting to enjoy a get-together — first because of the pandemic and then because the encampments scared potential clients. He tells of finding a 1½ gallon plastic container of used needles and syringes in an abandoned garbage heap.
Says Eipert, “We players once had cross country runners, dog walkers, picnickers, mountain bike riders and children around us as we played. They’re all gone. Now we just have addicts, belligerent fence jumpers, vandals, graffiti, trash, squatter shouting matches, used needles, ambulance calls and low-hanging campfire smoke.”
Anthony Derrick, Durkan’s press secretary, says Green Lake is among the encampment hot spots such as the Ballard Commons that in the next few weeks will get “intensified outreach” offering shelter to individuals before encampments are removed.
But first, he says, new shelter beds have to open up. The city has a timeline that shows 380 new units opening up by mid-December, with some accommodating couples.
Then, those who set up new tents “will be asked to leave,” an approach that’s “seen success” in places like Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, he says.
As for the RVs, vans and cars, Derrick says the 72-hour ordinance will be enforced. You can only park in the same spot for three days. Otherwise, the owner may be cited and the vehicle towed.
But, he says, a vehicle with someone living in it “would not be impounded unless it poses a specific risk to public health such as inadequate sanitation.”
So, does that mean those vehicles can stay?
“Not necessarily,” says Derrick in an email. “The city often works with people living in RVs to encourage them to voluntarily relocate their vehicle and to connect them to appropriate resources for people experiencing homelessness. This approach has often been successful, making it unnecessary to resort to impounding the vehicle.”
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This city considers Green Lake a treasure. It’s on a 2010 list of most-visited city parks in the country, according to The Trust for Public Land, a park advocacy nonprofit.
On a sunny day, the area is at its postcard best, and much of the lake lives up to that idealized image.
Parents walking along with a baby stroller. A jogger along the 2.8-mile track circling the 293 acres of water. Couples stretched out on the grass. The espresso place with fresh pastries. The historic Gregg’s Cycle that first opened its doors in 1932.
When the money can be found, the city has a proposed plan for a new building to replace the old, existing rec center, including a new gym and pool.
That’s the Seattle of a hopeful vision. Then there is the part along a concentrated portion of west Green Lake and the Woodland Park hillside.
On a recent afternoon, Andrea Seidler, who’s lived on Phinney Ridge since 1997, was again visiting the Green Lake encampment. She’s 61, a retired assistant to a broker.
She’s gone on runs around Green Lake regularly since age 22.
“It’s an oasis. I enjoy every minute of it,” says Seidler. She’s also gotten to know many of the people in the park.
“We’re on a first-name basis,” she says. “Every single one of them tells me they don’t want to be in a tent.”
In her runs around the lake, Seidler couldn’t help but notice visitors’ reaction to the tents. “A lot of the frowns and glaring was from people walking by and seeing the trash. I thought I was helping by keeping the area neat and tidy,” she says.
Back in January, seeing the garbage accumulating at the encampments, Seidler decided to help with a one-woman cleanup. She bought large-size cinch garbage bags, and one of those litter-grabber tools.
The many needles she found on the ground she’d put in a sharp-object container, or on top of a concrete post, just so that they’d be seen and not stepped on.
Seidler stopped her garbage pickup. By then she was on her sixth litter grabber as the others broke from too much use. It didn’t seem to be helping.
In March, a “Clean City” program was started by the city that included picking up trash and needles at encampments across the city.
Since then, 5.3 million pounds of trash and some 93,000 needles have been collected at those encampments.
Among those Seidler frequently talks to is James Schierman, 44, who lives in a tent. His state ID shows his address at 167th and Aurora Avenue North. It’s the Shoreline branch of Therapeutic Health Services.
“That’s where I get my methadone,” he says. “I was on heroin.” He also says he has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and receives government disability, getting $835 a month plus $197 in food stamps.
“All my money goes pretty much for food, and a little of clothing,” Schierman says. He’s lived in various parts of the Northwest — here, Portland, Marysville and other surroundings — and has been homeless for about 13 years, he says.
On this afternoon, Schierman has to deal with somebody having stolen his cellphone.
He understands the frustrations from neighbors.
“I can’t blame them. It’s gross,” he says about the garbage.
Schierman says he’d love to move into some kind of housing.
“I’d sleep in my tent 24 hours a day,” he says. “But you can’t do that. I’d go crazy.”
Since he was interviewed, Schierman has moved on; it’s not clear where, says Seidler.
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In postings on Nextdoor, and when a callout was done for this story, neighbors told their stories of an increase in crime and vandalism that they associate with the encampments, from seeing somebody sawing a catalytic converter off a car, to photos of a charred tree by an encampment.
The Seattle Fire Department says from the beginning of the year until Oct. 3, it has responded to 1,013 fires at encampments citywide.
A sampling of fire incident reports at Green Lake during July and August: “Illegal cooking fire in encampment violating burn ban. Campers refuse to extinguish.” “Shopping cart full of stuff on fire.” “Small fire under tree.”
But the Seattle Police Crime Dashboard for Phinney Ridge has stayed about the same when comparing pre-pandemic 2018 with 2020 and its pandemic encampments surge.
2018: Violent crime, 11. Property crime: 425.
2020: Violent crime, 10. Property crime: 454.
Neighbors and someone like the lawn bowling club’s Eipert say there’s no point in making many official police reports of what they say is increased crime. “We never get any action. Nobody wants to waste their time,” he says.
These days, says Janie Duckett, a real estate agent whose family has lived by the Bathhouse Theater at the lake for over 20 years, “When I do walk the lake, the sound of generators and the smell of burning garbage and urine is overpowering. The sad thing is, my 10-year-old is used to it!”
The neighbors resent being labeled as NIMBYs and privileged homeowners. In emails they send to city officials, the property taxes they pay are sometimes cited. It is property taxes that — at $354 million in 2020 — are the largest revenue for the city’s $1.4 billion general fund, followed by the sales tax, business and occupation taxes, and utility taxes.
The Durkan administration has removed dozens of encampments around the city this year. But as the situation in this spot remains, numerous neighbors living in houses by the lake and Woodland Park tell in interviews of often unresponsive city agencies.
“I’m not some right-wing conservative,” says Kyle Oswald, in medical device sales. He and his wife (she declined to have her name in the story for privacy reasons) moved to the Green Lake area eight years ago. “We love being in the city, going swimming in the lake, on the trail with my daughter.”
Back in August, he sent another of his frequent emails, this time to Durkan and Councilmembers Andrew Lewis (whose district includes Magnolia and Queen Anne) and Dan Strauss (whose district includes Green Lake):
“Once again, I’m forced to lobby a complaint against your tolerance of homeless and drug abusers,” Oswald wrote. “I’m so tired of non actionable results taking place. Here is the latest scenario. My 6 year old daughter and I walked to the tennis court on the west side of Green Lake. Tennis courts which I help fund with the taxes I pay!
“Only to be beaten to the courts by the three individuals in the picture below (Oswald attached an image). But they weren’t the normal athletes getting some exercise playing tennis. They were three addicts in various stages of a high. One hanging on the fence shouting, one shaking and vomiting on the court and the other laying around … Let me guess how each of you will respond to this picture … silence!!!”
Oswald says there was no reply.
Strauss declined to be interviewed for this story but Amanda Pleasant-Brown, his chief of staff, emailed a statement that concluded, “It is my understanding the city will prioritize Woodland Park and Green Lake as these resources come online.”
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During the campaign for mayor, Harrell and his opponent in the mayor’s race, City Council President M. Lorena González, showed up at Green Lake on separate occasions to talk to the neighbors. It didn’t go well for González, who was peppered with questions about what exactly she proposed to do about the encampments.
Janie Duckett and her husband showed up for both events.
“We asked what her upcoming action plan would be in the next 30 to 60 days and she responded that she planned to have more meetings,” she recounts in an email.
The neighbors have expectations. The city has expectations.
Duckett’s precinct went 84% for Harrell, who will be sworn in Jan. 1.