Mere days before Christmas and the arrival of a new mayor in City Hall, Seattle cleanup crews and parking enforcement removed an encampment Monday morning at Green Lake Park that the surrounding neighborhood has been vocal about for much of the year.
Mayor Jenny Durkan, in her last months in office, has been steadily removing large Seattle encampments. A statement from her office cast Monday’s removal as part of a new pandemic-era strategy where everyone in the encampment is offered shelter or housing, and outreach staff work for months to make sure as many as possible move there safely before getting rid of the encampment.
But advocates of that new method were hesitant to agree. About half of the more than 30 people in the camp received referrals to tiny houses or shelter, and 13 simply moved their tents and belongings — many of them, according to a camper, up the hill to Woodland Park where a large encampment still sprawls. It’s unclear when that encampment will be removed.
After two removals of high-profile encampments earlier this month that drew praise for moving a large portion of residents into shelters, tiny homes or other housing, Green Lake’s clearing appeared closer to those before the pandemic, when police would give homeless campers a few days’ notice, and most campers would simply move to the next park.
People who live near the park or use it have complained for months as the encampment grew.
Though Seattle police statistics for the surrounding area show crime is slightly lower this year than previous, neighbors like Kyle Oswald, who lives within half a mile, said it certainly feels like crime rose when the encampment grew. He’s had propane tanks and outdoor seat cushions stolen from his backyard in the last year.
Oswald wishes the campers hadn’t been forced to leave during Christmas week, but blames city leaders for refusing to deal with this issue for so long.
“My contention is with the City Council and the mayor kicking this can down the road for years and years and years,” Oswald said.
Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell hosted a news conference down the street from the encampment in September before winning the election on a platform partly focused on keeping parks clear of encampments.
Harrell, who takes office next month, said in a statement that it is inhumane for people to live in parks without sanitation, running water and access to the services needed to restore lives and stability, and this removal was a step in that direction.
“We cannot allow this crisis to continue to worsen,” Harrell’s statement said. “My priority from day one will be putting into action the resources we have to help restore lives, while at the same time restoring parks, public places and public trust in Seattle.”
Councilmember Dan Strauss was heavily involved with the Ballard Commons removal earlier this month, where the vast majority of people living in tents not only got referred to shelter but the city and its partners made sure they actually moved in. Strauss said he didn’t know enough about the city’s removal tactics to say if Green Lake had the same process.
Twice, the date to clear Ballard Commons was pushed back, Strauss said, because there were remaining campers who wanted to go inside but appropriate shelter hadn’t yet opened.
“The success of that removal was we weren’t rushing to close the park,” Strauss said.
Lisa Daugaard, one of the leading evangelists for the new approach and the executive director of the Public Defender Association, also wasn’t involved in this removal and declined to comment on whether it was the kind of removal she coordinated at City Hall Park and at Eighth Avenue South and King Street earlier this year, among others.
Daugaard did say that one of the extraordinary things about Ballard Commons and Bitter Lake was how many hotels and tiny house villages were opening up at the time outreach workers were offering alternatives to the outdoors — and more than the long timelines, those new beds were the reason for that success.
“So without the appropriate range of options, there’s no way to accomplish the kind of resolution of an encampment that from time to time [our partnership] has been able to bring to bear,” Daugaard said.
Stacia Murphy, who’s lived at the Green Lake camp four months, said she woke up to the city crews telling people to leave this morning. She had accepted a referral to move into a tiny house on Friday but staff couldn’t find her that day when they came to the camp. She missed her chance and someone else got the spot, she said.
Murphy blames herself for that, and said that living conditions at the Green Lake encampment worsened in the last few months as more people moved in and stopped picking up their trash. But she still felt pained by the push.
“They literally had to do this before Christmas,” Murphy said. “That’s what hurts me the most.”