A large homeless encampment at Seattle’s City Hall Park that’s been under significant political pressure in the last few months was almost entirely gone Thursday afternoon. Most of the dirt ground was clear and only a few tents and people remained — some of them onlookers who’d already moved their tents away.
Seventy people at the park, where a camp grew substantially as removals began to ramp up again elsewhere around the city, were referred to shelters, tiny houses, and hotel rooms, officials said. Some picked up and moved their tents somewhere else.
Notices posted on trees say the park will be closed as of Friday morning, and any tents or personal belongings left would be removed.
Although the county jail and courts are nearby and crime has been persistent in the immediate area for decades, this encampment near the King County Courthouse downtown has been blamed for recent high-profile crimes. After a fatal stabbing in June in the park, 33 King County Superior Court judges signed a letter to the city’s parks superintendent asking for the park’s shutdown. Last week, in response to reports of an attempted rape in a courthouse restroom nearby, more than 250 county workers and supporters marched and urged city leaders to provide housing for people staying in the park, among other things.
There were more than 3,700 unsheltered homeless people just in the city of Seattle at last count in January 2020, and after the pandemic hit, one survey documented a 50% rise in the number of tents citywide.
This is the best example yet that if the city offers people good alternatives to living outside, they’ll take them, said Lisa Daugaard, executive director of the Public Defender Association. Daugaard’s organization manages the partnership program getting people into hotel rooms, called “JustCARE” after the federal CARES act money that funded it last year. The city and county are propping up the program for another year with $15 million in federal money.
Daugaard said Mayor Jenny Durkan took some political risk in pushing back on the county judges and waiting weeks while social workers got people into shelters or hotel rooms.
“The mayor’s office honestly has planted a flag — and said, ‘The people in the park have needs,'” Daugaard said.
Daugaard said only three campers moved to other spots around the city rather than a hotel or shelter spot. One activist and a former camper said there were over a hundred people staying at the park, but Daugaard said there were some people who didn’t live in the park running underground businesses out of tents.
Ibrahim Mohamed, a construction worker who’s been homeless in Seattle three years and left the camp a week ago for a room uptown, said the removal “could be good or bad” — it depends on what happens to the people next. With cheap housing at a premium and the state behavioral health system crippled by COVID-19, it may be a while before many move into more stable situations.
Chedor Hall, who says he was “in and out” of the camp for about a year, heard there would be a removal from another camper and simply moved his tent down next to a dumpster on Rainier. A former pipe-fitter, he’s been homeless on and off for thirty years and said City Hall Park was safe compared to many places he’s stayed, such as Skid Row in Los Angeles.
“I’m from Compton. I was born in Watts,” Hall said. “This is like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow part compared to where I’ve been.”
Hall said he never talked to any outreach workers, though he wanted to and would take a hotel room. Everyone remaining in the park this week was offered shelter and an “individualized safety plan,” said Stephanie Formas, Durkan’s chief of staff, in an email.
“It is my understanding that it was an exception but still true that some individuals still choose to relocate” to other spots outdoors, Formas said. “Our teams did incredible work… to make a person centered difference in Pioneer Square and the park, which includes individuals experiencing chronic homelessness and significant behavioral health issues (which is also not every encampment in the city).”
Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who’d called in June for the park to be condemned, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about this week’s actions and felt the city was approaching the encampment in a better way than in the past, where removals have been “haphazard.”
“It’s one thing to get folks out of a park and into shelters or housing,” Dunn said. “It’s another to address the underlying causes of homelessness, like drug and alcohol abuse, like mental health treatment, like job training.”
City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who has helped lead the charge to provide more funding for hotel rooms and tiny house villages with federal and philanthropic money, was at the park Thursday afternoon, talking to media and activists.
“If we want to do more of this, we need more tiny houses, and we need them fast,” Lewis said. “We need more hotel placements.”
However, several activists talking to Lewis, who declined to give names, said this felt more like a Band-Aid.
“What it seems like is JustCARE is focusing on the big eyesore to the (expletive) yuppies,” one said.
Daugaard agrees that all of these hotel rooms and shelter options materialized at once for so many people because the park “got a lot of attention and pressure from powerful people who work in the adjacent buildings.”
“In a way there’s nothing special about this park,” Daugaard said. “So if I were the rest of the city, I would be looking and saying, ‘Awesome. And why can’t that happen around the corner from my apartment, my business?'”