As homeless tent camps move into Seattle’s beloved parks, volunteer stewards are caught between competing values.

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When Dean Drugge went to water an area along the Burke-Gilman Trail that he and other volunteers planted last winter, he came across a muddy 10-by-12-foot clearing. Someone had chopped down the willow and dogwood trees and uprooted sword ferns and salmonberries to make way for a campsite.

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Drugge, a volunteer forest steward, confiscated the pitchfork, hatchet and handsaw left behind by the camper to prevent further destruction. “It’s discouraging,” he said.

Nearly three years since the city declared a “state of emergency” over homelessness, the crisis continues to grow, and many homeless people seek refuge in Seattle’s beloved urban forests.

Forest stewards across the city grapple with competing values of environmental conservation and compassion for the homeless as they see compacted soil, trampled plants, human waste and leftover needles in the interstices of towering maples. This has prompted the question of whom the parks should serve.

There were 823 complaints about homelessness in the city’s more than 485 parks and natural areas — which total 6,414 acres — last year, and near that number as of July. The city said improved data collection of complaints about homeless camps may account for part of the dramatic uptick.

Among the city’s responses to those concerns are recently installed gates at roadway entrances into Woodland Park, to deter overnight RV camping, according to Rachel Schulkin, spokeswoman for Seattle Parks and Recreation.

Environmental groups and forest stewards have found it difficult to balance their priorities with the needs of those looking for a place to lay their heads at night.

“It puts us in a position where we set up nature conservation and homeless advocacy as opposing causes. Many people support both,” John Brosnan, executive director of Seattle Audubon, said of camping in parks.

“We have to protect our urban forests from these high-impact uses so that they will remain healthy for residents today and in the future,” Brosnan said. “They’re not intended to be places for people to set up a home.”

Drugge said he has seen more homeless encampments — some outfitted with propane tanks and solar panels — around Matthews Beach Park and Magnuson Park in recent years. He reports them, but, “Nothing happens for a long time.”

Although some forest stewards abandon sites that attract campers, Drugge said he doesn’t want to give up. “Nature will come back eventually.”

From no-go to let’s go

Not far from Columbia City Station is the main entrance to Cheasty Greenspace’s 50 acres. Over the past decade, forest stewards have transformed the southern 10 acres of Cheasty from a hotbed of illicit activity into well-traveled forest with a new trail system.

“There used to be mattresses seeded in the blackberry briar patches for prostitution rings 11 years ago,” said Susan Zeman, a forest steward, standing by the benches that have gone in where a former encampment compacted the soil. “We’ve converted an anti-social no-go place into a place where people bring their grandkids.”

Stewards and neighbors who have volunteered countless weekends pulling ivy and digging up blackberry bushes — two invasive species that previously covered the green spaces — sometimes find their efforts undone by encampments.

Forest stewards have not encountered tents in the southern part, but they regularly have campers in the larger northern parcel to the north, where stained toilet paper is strewn across shrubs.

A tent sits off of a path in the northern side of Cheasty Greenspace in Seattle. Many homeless people seek refuge in the city’s urban forests.  (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
A tent sits off of a path in the northern side of Cheasty Greenspace in Seattle. Many homeless people seek refuge in the city’s urban forests. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

Zeman said the park, surrounded by working-class neighborhoods, serves an important role in providing access to nature — especially for “people who can’t load their kids in the SUV and drive to Mount Si.”

“When there’s encampments, we’ve ceded the space,” Zeman said. “It’s a public forest that we want to remain public, but we also want to respect people’s desire to live in peace and dignity.”

Zeman, who has served homeless patients in her capacity as a cardiac nurse, said she sympathizes with those seeking quiet and stability in the woods, but that these people deserve better.

“If they go deeper into the forest and we don’t see them, our sense of urgency disappears.”

Navigation Team

As forest stewards encounter more homeless people in their work, they face new challenges. Andrea Mojzak, who supports volunteer forest stewards across the city through the Green Seattle Partnership, said they train stewards on safety concerns, to not throw out anything that could be someone’s belongings, and to move restoration events if someone is living on the site.

Many stewards have come to her conflicted about whether to report an encampment. Those living in the parks can vary widely in their behavior and environmental footprint. “Sometimes people who live in the parks are peaceful, tidy and friendly,” Mojzak said. “There are also camps that are destructive to the restoration.”

Saving parks became a flashpoint in the homelessness crisis when, in 2016, the Seattle City Council considered a controversial ordinance that would create protections for homeless campers on some public properties, including undeveloped park area. Public outcry halted the proposal.

In response to the rising problem of tent camping, Seattle in early 2017 formed the Navigation Team, a group of police officers and outreach workers tasked with both trying to help campers into shelters and with removing unsafe encampments. The 22-member team goes to parks on almost a daily basis.

At Woodland Park, where the city recently installed gates, the city received 47 complaints about unauthorized camping in 2017 and has received 55 this year, according to Navigation Team spokesman Will Lemke. He noted that priority of cleanups is not based on volume of complaints so much as the danger posed.

Under the city’s Multi-Department Administrative Rule — official guidelines governing encampment removals — the Navigation Team considers all camping in parks to be an obstruction of public use and can “remove them much quicker and with less offers of service,” Lemke said.

Even so, they typically try to reach out to campers 72 hours before cleaning out the camp. They made 939 contacts with people living in unsanctioned encampments on parks property in 2017, making 89 referrals to shelter, according to Lemke.

“For a lot of people, Seattle city parks are the only place they can afford to have a vacation or time to themselves, but to have encampments that make them feel unsafe, those concerns are valid and we try to remove those encampments,” Lemke added.

Tom Kelly, a forest steward for more than 20 years, said that while solutions to the crisis may not be simple or affordable, the city is throwing away precious resources in the meantime.

“The restored vegetation is essentially infrastructure, a capital investment,” he said. “It isn’t just a matter of casting grass seed.”

The Navigation Team received $10 million in 2017 for operation costs, which cover the time park crews spend on encampment cleanup, Lemke said. Beyond that, the parks department does not receive funding earmarked for homelessness, nor does it track whether there is an additional cost associated with homelessness, Schulkin said.

Schulkin was quick to point out that other groups can damage green spaces as well. “We’re pretty sure that’s happening with young people,” she said of fires in Magnuson Park.

“Off-leash dogs are one of the biggest culprits for why we lose plants,” Katherine Taylor, a forest steward at Woodland Park, added.

Calm in the trees

Looking at homelessness in Seattle more broadly, Sara Rankin, director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at the Seattle University School of Law, said that the city has forced its residents into an “untenable position.”

“The city is sitting on top of all sorts of land that are not public parks,” she said, citing tiny-house villages on unused paved land as one alternative. “They’re not choosing to make that property available as respites frequently enough, or boldly enough.”

Even if the city created more interim shelter, Rankin said more needs to be done to provide permanent affordable housing, ensuring that camping in parks does not seem like the best option.

Sheri Collins, who has lived in her car for the past seven years, prefers staying in parks because of the relative calm.

“I have personally witnessed and experienced the mental and psychological difference of homeless people who spend much of their time in nature vs. in the streets,” she wrote in an email. “We are starting to become more sociable with each other and the public.”

The freedom from people vandalizing her car in retail parking lots and noisy streets is liberating for Collins. “It’s a gnawing existence that eats at us constantly.”

One RV camper in Woodland Park said the urban location helps him save money.

“Most of us work, so we don’t have time to go out to the boondocks and fuel’s very expensive,” said a freelance mechanic who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He and his wife had to move out of their home before they saved enough to drive to the Gulf Coast, where they hope to re-establish themselves. “Parks are our only fighting chance to have someplace to kick up our feet at night.”

Though tent and RV camping in Seattle parks is not legal, parks employees have not strictly enforced the rules. However, as city agencies contend with a growing homeless population in parks, that may change.

A teaching moment

Inside Woodland Park sits a small forest with mini-switchback trails and Douglas firs 3 feet tall. This restoration site is a labor of love for children enrolled in the Roots of Connection outdoor preschool.

Brooke Ahlegian, co-founder and lead teacher, said teaching children to care for nature has translated well into teaching compassion for people — a lesson she had not planned to teach when she opened the school two years ago, but has become necessary in light of interactions with homeless people in the park.

Brooke Ahlegian is the lead teacher and co-founder of the Roots of Connection outdoor preschool inside Woodland Park in Seattle. She says teaching children to care for nature has translated well into teaching compassion for people. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Brooke Ahlegian is the lead teacher and co-founder of the Roots of Connection outdoor preschool inside Woodland Park in Seattle. She says teaching children to care for nature has translated well into teaching compassion for people. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

On one occasion, during lunchtime, a homeless man in distress screamed that he was hungry. Since Ahlegian had spoken with the man several times before, she felt comfortable offering the man food and calmed him down.

“The same kid that used to scream ‘homeless person!’ went up to him and told him that ‘I’m sorry about your situation,’ ” Ahlegian recalled.