Dozens of police and parks employees descended Wednesday on Denny Park, where only a handful of homeless campers remained after outreach workers have been visiting for the last few months.
The clearing of people and their belongings was for the most part quieter than bigger removals last year in Cal Anderson park or Little Saigon — where demonstrators protested the city removing camps during the COVID-19 pandemic — but a few activists did show up to help homeless campers, and there were loud confrontations with police when they were asked to leave.
Advocates and City Council members have decried these encampment removals for years, saying they do nothing to solve the problem of homelessness that has spilled into Seattle’s streets. Last year, in an effort to remove police from encampment response, the City Council defunded the Navigation Team, a controversial group of cops and social workers that offered shelter spots to homeless campers before moving them along.
But it’s unclear if this removal of what was on Monday 20 people or so living in tents and makeshift shelters at the park is much different than the ones the City Council tried to stop last year.
Joseph Vienneau left the tent he had shared in the oldest park in the city for the last few weeks, in the heart of Amazon’s empty headquarters, for a bed at the Navigation Center, a dormitory-style shelter in Little Saigon.
Notices had gone up on trees and sign posts around the park earlier this week that he had to have his belongings out by 9 a.m.
But Vienneau anticipated that this sweep would be just like those that have moved him in the past.
“When the three days are up, police always come,” Vienneau said.
On Monday, a blog post from Seattle Police Department read: “This week, the Seattle Police Department will be supporting City departments and providers as they conduct outreach and remediation at an encampment in Denny Park.” It was later changed to say police would be “on standby” during the cleanup, and Detective Patrick Michaud, a spokesperson for the department, said they will have officers ready to go there if need be.
Early Wednesday, more than a dozen officers were present, telling activists and members of mutual aid groups to leave the park.
Aside from police presence, the choice to clear Denny also raised questions.
After months of negotiation with council members, Mayor Jenny Durkan agreed to a structure that is forming but would be more outreach-focused. Councilmember Tammy Morales helped create that new outreach strategy last year that she claimed would rely on homeless nonprofits when it came to where and where not to remove people.
“I don’t think we’ve ever suggested that there’s no situation in which removals shouldn’t happen, but those decisions need to be made by outreach providers working with people every day,” Morales told The Seattle Times last year. “If (nonprofit outreach organizations the city contracts with) decide there is something happening and an encampment needs to be removed, then that’s a decision that should be made by them.”
Morales wasn’t available for an interview Tuesday. But Chloe Gale, who runs homeless services nonprofit REACH, which has done outreach to the park this past week, said the decision to clear the park was an internal decision within the city.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has largely stopped the city from moving homeless people from one place to another due to guidance from federal public health authorities. Council members and advocates have said that an intervention like the one planned must reach a high bar to be justified.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, whose district the park sits in, said it felt very different than some of the high-profile COVID-era camp removals last year “because there really have been months and months of very intense outreach.” Lewis has been visiting the camp several times a month and he said that last summer, there were more than 70 people there.
“I was out there on the really big snow day two weeks ago,” Lewis said. “I was actually astounded how few people were actually there. I had not been there for probably a month at that point.”
King County Equity Now, a community group that has pushed to stop camp removals, said they denounce all sweeps in a statement to The Times.
“In a society that does not allow for upward social or economic mobility, our city refuses to provide the services and/or resources necessary for, at bottom, clean, safe and stable housing, adequate food and sustenance, and security for all of its residents,” the statement said. “Instead of earnestly trying to solve this issue, Seattle is choosing to actively demolish the physical communities our unhoused neighbors have created.”
A spokesperson for the mayor wrote in an email that since November, more than 60 calls to 911 have originated in the park, including 10 calls for arson, rubbish fires and illegal burns; five for domestic violence, four assaults, three sex offenses and one report of an overdose.
Outreach workers came by a week ago and told Vienneau and his tentmate Seth Moreno they’d have to leave by Wednesday, the two said. Moreno didn’t mind; when he and a core group started camping at this place, he says, they kept it clean, shared a portable generator and used the nearby port-a-potties.
It almost looked like some urban campground, with string lights running between trees and a well-manicured lawn and dog park.
In 2017, the city spent $2 million dollars on a renovation. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, all the tech workers disappeared, and tents began popping up, and staying.
Last year, several of that core group left — mostly Native Americans, who were able to get hotel rooms with funding from the federal government. New people moved into their tents, Moreno said.
“Then someone stole the generator,” Moreno said. Then someone else went to the bathroom on the lawn, and another person. On Feb. 17, a large fire damaged a number of tents, according to a spokesperson for the mayor.
“Now it’s disgusting,” Moreno said.
To Moreno and Vienneau, Wednesday’s removal seems much the same.
“If housing’s not the priority, no one is going to be able to fix themselves,” Moreno said.
Seattle Times photographer Erika Schultz contributed reporting for this story.