A federal judge has summarily denied a request for an emergency temporary restraining order to stop Seattle police and park workers from clearing the hold-out remnants of a large homeless encampment at Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill.
U.S. District Judge Richard Jones said the plaintiff in the case, a Seattle resident named Ada Yeager who had been living at Cal Anderson, failed to prove that the removal of an encampment that has been at the park since June would violate the constitutional rights of those who had been living there.
According to declarations filed in the case, Yeager on Thursday had agreed to work with city officials to find housing, although her attorney, Braden Pence, said many of the issues in the lawsuit remained unresolved, including whether her property would be destroyed or stored in the interim.
“If this lawsuit comes away with her having gotten housing as a result, that’s fantastic,” Pence said. “It’s too bad it had to take this much to get their attention. She’s been trying to find a place for months.”
Yeager had claimed the removals by police and park workers violated First Amendment free speech rights, given that Cal Anderson Park had been a focal point of summer protests over police brutality. She also said the sweeps amounted to illegal seizures of property, claiming police routinely destroy personal belongings, and that they denied the residents due process of law.
Jones rejected every point, saying the paucity of Yeager’s pleadings failed to prove any of those things were happening, or that the city’s policies were inadequate and led to constitutional violations.
As for the free speech argument, Jones said the “evidence that she has offered to show that the City’s intended evictions are content-based is slim.” Likewise, he rejected her claim of illegal seizure of her private property.
“There is hardly any evidence in the record to conclude that the City has, in fact, engaged in the type of on-the-spot destruction of property” that the courts have barred in other cases, Jones said.
Yeager continues to seek a temporary injunction to stop evictions, and Jones told both sides to prepare a briefing schedule for the court by Dec. 28.
Jones had reluctantly taken the matter under advisement following a nearly two-hour emergency hearing Wednesday evening after both sides urged guidance from the court. He referred to Seattle’s miserable December weather and said it was a “horrible time” for the court to have to decide whether to allow the evictions to proceed.
As for providing the campers with due process before the evictions or seizures, Jones said Yeager’s pleadings were inadequate but, even if they weren’t, the police and parks department on Tuesday distributed several flyers before they were run out of the park that explained the time, place and property procedures. Yeager acknowledged she got one.
Jones said Yeager could not show that this notification was not adequate.
The city had planned to clear the park sometime Wednesday morning but hesitated after Yeager filed her lawsuit and protesters gathered at the park. However, attorneys for Seattle have said that, if the court gave the go-ahead, clearing the park was imminent, out of concern for health and public safety. They said people living in the encampment have been hostile and threatened park workers and police.
They also pointed out that, technically, the park is closed due to city COVID-19 restrictions, and that those living there were in violation of those requirements.
A statement sent by city spokesperson Rachel Schulkin Thursday evening said officials have “created a plan” to remove any barricades in the park and are preparing for “multi-day intensive maintenance,” which would include repairing city facilities and picking up trash, debris and needles. Schulkin declined to say when the cleanup process would begin.
The statement said outreach workers already contracted with the city also “continued to offer shelter and services.”
As of Thursday, the city had identified 50 available shelter spaces, including youth and adult facilities, the statement said. Since last week, outreach workers have referred 20 people to shelters and hotels, according to the city.
“Mayor (Jenny) Durkan believes our City can have mutually shared values: individuals experiencing homelessness should be in safer shelters and spaces, and our parks should not be places with illegal fires, barricades, and individuals who are threatening city workers,” the Thursday statement from the city said. “The City’s goal remains the same — to bring individuals experiencing homelessness inside into safer spaces including hotels and partner with community to reopen the park.”
Yeager was disappointed in Thursday’s ruling, but “thrilled with the community’s widespread resistance to the City’s raid of her home and community,” a statement distributed by her attorneys said.
“This suit [has] been just a small part of that resistance, which delayed the raid for 36 hours and counting,” the statement said. “In the meantime, Ada and her unhoused neighbors have had the chance to find shelter, organize, and bring more attention to Seattle’s brutal housing crisis.”
In arguing for the restraining order, Pence said the forced removal of the encampment would likely result in the “coordinated destruction and taking of personal property of unhoused citizens” without due process or consideration of civil rights.
Pence also argued that the park is a focal point for Black Lives Matter protesters who have targeted the Seattle Police Department’s nearby East Precinct and, for several weeks in the summer, was the heart of CHOP — the Capitol Hill Organized Protest — after police abandoned the facility. Yeager was a participant, Pence argued, and has lived at the park since. He argued that forcing campers out would violate their free speech protections.
Police returned to the precinct after several weeks, following complaints from businesses and shootings that left two dead and several others injured.
The city denies the park has any significance as a forum for speech. Assistant City Attorney Jeremy Wood insisted the issue was a “question of trespassing, not a question of content.”
Over the past several days, as news of the planned sweep spread, a number of protesters arrived at the park and began building barricades, prompting Seattle Police Officers Guild President Mike Solan in his weekly podcast to speculate that the city could soon experience “CHOP 2.0”
Seattle Times reporter Elise Takahama contributed to this report.