When Edward Steele comes out of his assisted living home in the New Holly neighborhood, in Seattle’s South End, he often likes to roll his wheelchair across the street to the jewel of the Seattle Housing Authority complex, 6-acre John C. Little Sr. Park.
“It was the most heavily used park you can imagine,” Steele says. “There aren’t that many outside places for people to go down here.”
The New Holly housing project was designed that way, with tiny yards too small for kids to play in specifically so that “middle-class homeowners and poor people in public housing can live on equal ground,” said a Seattle Times story in 2007. “Sales literature promotes it as a return to the days when neighbors swapped stories on the porch and greeted each other with friendly waves as their children played catch in the park.”
If Steele goes to the park now, it’s to check on the construction. Starting in the summer, about 15 to 20 people started living in the park and, in addition to setting up the more typical tents, have now built a wooden, tarp-covered structure with a foundation, along with a paving stone stairway cut into the hillside.
It’s all within 20 feet of the children’s play area — which has some New Holly residents wondering whether they’ve been cut off from City Hall.
“They brought in tools and dolly-loads of scrap cabinet wood and plywood,” Steele, 65, says. “I know they say the homeless have nowhere else to go, but how can you come into a kids’ play area and just build your own structure? There’s got to be something illegal about that.”
Technically, yes. The reason the campers haven’t been cleared out of this park, though, or in any of the other park encampments around the city, made some sense, at least at first. The city made an emergency decision back in March to allow camping in place due to the coronavirus (because indoor shelters were already too crowded to comply with social distancing).
But even homeless-friendly Seattle, which has long looked the other way at encampments in low-trafficked greenbelts, has never approved homeless camps in developed parts of city parks such as children’s play areas, for obvious reasons.
Some New Holly residents have been petitioning the city about these obvious reasons for weeks now — about how their kids can’t go to the park during a pandemic, about drug use and nightly smoke from camp fires, about the occasional person in the park shooting a bow and arrow or brandishing a sword. City officials assured New Holly residents that the encampment would be temporary, and that the city’s outreach team, called the Navigation Team, would check on it regularly.
“The City’s Navigation Team is aware of the John C. Little park campers, and has received your report as additional information,” a Seattle parks division director wrote to one resident last month. The Navigation Team, he said, would continue to do outreach to the encampment to make sure it doesn’t grow out of control.
The letter closed: “This may bring little to no comfort regarding the illegal activities that you and your neighbors are experiencing.”
Well, now the city has eliminated even this Navigation Team.
If you haven’t been following along, this is the result of a huge cluster you-know-what between the City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan. The council canceled funding for the outreach team because it has police officers on it and they feel it does too many punitive sweeps. Durkan vetoed that cut, and then when the council overrode her veto, Durkan announced that the Navigation Team is, as ordered, kaput.
Council members insist they wanted the money saved from the Navigation Team to be used to pay other outreach workers, but that hasn’t happened yet and might not until next year.
One would think you’d get the new team up and running before cancelling the old one. But that phrase “one would think” is being used, futilely, to try to divine meaning out of many a City Hall action recently.
Residents say the coronavirus threat for the homeless concerned them, too, so at first they welcomed some campers to the park. But now they feel abandoned.
“The city recently removed just such a camp from Cal Anderson park,” one resident wrote, referring to the park on Capitol Hill. “But that park is in a wealthier, more high-profile neighborhood, so apparently the ‘policy’ has been suspended there.”
What could the city have done instead? We’re nearly eight months into the pandemic, and it sure seems like we should have more socially distanced shelter options by now, such as more motel rooms. Or remember that field hospital in the stadium district the military and FEMA set up in a couple days? Do that except for people living homeless. Building housing is great, but it takes years.
Regardless, this is where we are right now: We’ve got an encampment digging in at a children’s play area in a city park, situated in a city housing authority development specifically designed around reliance on that park.
And the city’s not only not doing anything about it, but, sorry New Holly, get used to it, because it doesn’t have any agreed-upon framework for doing anything about it in the future either.