Seattle’s Cal Anderson Park, where activists camped out during protests over the summer and where homeless people have lived in tents for several months, will be cleared Wednesday, the city said this week.
Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council have come under pressure from some of the park’s neighbors to address what has arguably become Seattle’s most prominent encampment. Those opposed to encampment removals are asking people to rally at the park to try to prevent the action Wednesday.
The removal is like many ordered across the city in recent years and the disagreement is the latest in a long-running debate about how to address homeless camps in Seattle. But Wednesday’s action could prove particularly combustible because of the role Cal Anderson has played in recent protests.
While the park has been officially closed since the summer, people have used the space to live in and recreate without interruption. The city’s Department of Neighborhoods held online “community conversations” in August, September and October about potential “design and programming interventions” at Cal Anderson.
Parks Department employees posted notices Monday morning ordering the people there to remove all their personal property by 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The park must be cleared so the Parks Department can carry out a “multiday intensive maintenance and cleaning project,” department spokesperson Rachel Schulkin said in an email. Police officers were on hand when the notices were posted Monday because recent attempts to conduct maintenance at the park “have been met with threats of physical violence,” Schulkin said.
The city has deployed health care providers and contracted outreach workers to the park to provide support and offers of shelter to the people there, she said.
“The city’s goal is to bring those individuals inside to a safer space,” Schulkin said.
Wednesday’s action is the third time that Seattle has removed people and their belongings from the park since the city dismantled the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHOP, in July.
The city has removed few other encampments since the beginning of the pandemic, in keeping with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to let people shelter in place while the virus spreads.
But Cal Anderson hasn’t just become home to people living in tents. It’s also repeatedly drawn protesters for near-nightly demonstrations and activists who have occupied park property to distribute food and clothing to people living in the park.
In August, demonstrators entered a locked rental facility in the park and used the building known as the Shelterhouse to hand out food and supplies to people living homeless in the park. Police cleared the area twice within a month and fenced off the rental building and the bathrooms, but people returned to the park almost immediately.
After clearing the park in early September, the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation hired armed private security guards with the firm Jaguar Security to patrol the park. After being confronted by a group of protesters, the guards left the park during their first night on the job and refused to go back without an assurance that they would get backup from Seattle police if needed.
“In recent days, additional protesters have moved to Cal Anderson,” Schulkin said this week, comparing the current circumstances to the Shelterhouse situation.
The encampment has also seen multiple illegal fires, according to the city, and generated other health concerns.
“The CDC guidance calls for people living unsheltered to not congregate and follow physical-distancing guidelines — both of which are not being observed by the large and densely populated nature of the encampment in the park,” Schulkin said.
A spokesperson for Public Health – Seattle & King County said it wasn’t within the agency’s authority to approve or deny encampment removals during the pandemic, but that the agency continued to promote the CDC’s guidance and advise against encampment removals during COVID-19.
Members of the Cal Anderson Park Alliance, including representatives of Capitol Hill Farmers Market, Seattle Parks Foundation, Capitol Hill Business Alliance, Seattle Central College and the AIDS Memorial Pathway project, sent a letter to City Hall in October asking for a meeting “to discuss the current untenable conditions of the park and to chart an action plan for reopening.”
In October, a dozen business and neighborhood groups sent a letter urging City Hall to deal with what they called “a spiraling public-health and public-safety crisis” in various parks, including Cal Anderson. Durkan and the council initially responded last month with a multimillion–dollar plan to boost trash cleanup and maintenance work at parks.
On a cold and rainy Tuesday morning, outreach workers from REACH, a program that is part of nonprofit Evergreen Treatment Services, could be seen speaking to people in tents, dozens of which filled the park.
Queen B, 22, has been living in the park since the summer, when she moved from the University District with the hopes of finding more LGBTQ community members like herself. She said she’s been homeless since she was 18 and has tried shelters, but always comes back to the park.
“I have a new family over here,” she said. “It makes me feel comfortable, being in Capitol Hill, knowing that everywhere I go, I see Pride, trans flags.”
But living in the park hasn’t been easy — and at times it’s been frightening. She was living in the park in September when Lisa Vach, a 38-year-old woman who had only recently become homeless, was killed and found inside the park. Police said Travis Berge, who lived in the park and was also found dead inside a park pump house, was a suspect in her death.
Queen B, who knew Berge and Vach, still said she’d rather stick by the family she’s made in the park than come inside. She wasn’t sure where she’d go after Wednesday.
Anthony Pfeffer, 30, didn’t want to go to a shelter, either. He’s tried it before, he said, and felt like he was being set up to fail.
“They say that they can help, but then you call those kind of avenues — it’s just, no one’s ever there,” Pfeffer said.
Pfeffer had been homeless for years before he came to the park. He once had an apartment on Capitol Hill before experiencing domestic violence from his partner, he said.
In the summer, when the pandemic had shut down most everything else, including many resources for people living outside, the park offered Pfeffer a sense of home.
“It had everything that I ever needed,” Pfeffer said. “Food, family, a close connection with people.”
But things had become more difficult since then. It was getting colder and Pfeffer found it hard to trust people. At times, he didn’t feel safe.
Pfeffer pointed to a blackened and soggy pile of clothes roughly 50 feet away from his tent. There had been a fire, he said, but the campers put it out themselves.
Joseph Sanden recently set up a community kitchen and a glass-blowing studio at Cal Anderson, complete with propane tanks, an oxygen tank and a fire extinguisher. He sleeps in a truck parked next to the park.
“I just decided to come out here and help out,” he said, shaping a glass pipe over an open flame. “I’m bringing in food and supplies because it’s obvious the city has no idea how to help homeless people like us.”
The Durkan administration’s embrace of encampment removals during her term has drawn criticism from homeless advocates, service providers and members of the Seattle City Council.
Last week, Durkan announced she wouldn’t be running for reelection in 2021, raising questions about how she would approach homelessness in her time left in office. With less need for the mayor to garner political approval now, some have wondered whether her strategy on visible homelessness might look different moving forward.
In a city council committee meeting Tuesday afternoon, Councilmember Tammy Morales said it was unacceptable for city workers to feel unsafe while doing their jobs, but that it was “also unacceptable to be moving people when there aren’t enough places for people to go.”
Leading up to Wednesday’s removal, outreach teams have been working with people living in the park. More than 40 shelter beds were available during outreach on Monday, according to the city, including a tiny home. Some outreach workers contracted by the city were also able to offer hotel rooms, the city said.
“It’s really important to make sure, when we’re removing folks, that they have a place to go,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis said in an interview Tuesday, pointing to the additional 545 hotel rooms, shelter beds and tiny houses that the mayor and the council have allocated money for in the city’s 2021 budget.
He added, “We’re going to keep having the exact same conversation … the same awkward dance around the same controversy with these removals” until more people can be brought inside.
Seattle Times reporter Heidi Groover and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.