Wanda Williams and Troy Repp have lived in Woodland Park for more than three years. It’s felt like home; they have a mailbox in an old-growth tree and a makeshift cabin with a steering-wheel doorknob.
But the couple is ready to leave. The camp has grown since the pandemic hit, they say they hear gunshots every night and one of them always has to be there or they’ll get robbed.
“Some people are sincerely here because we’re having a hard time, but a lot of these kids are on drugs. And they’re having a hard time,” Williams said.
For years, a constellation of camps and RVs has sprawled through the trees of Woodland Park. Mayor Bruce Harrell, who pinned his election on what he billed as compassionate but urgent action on encampments, unveiled his homelessness platform last year just a few dozen feet away.
As he begins his term, it’s the first large encampment in his crosshairs — a “top focus,” according to a Harrell spokesperson.
But where the estimated 80 people living in the park will go isn’t as clear, as pandemic-driven hotel shelters start to close and nonprofits struggle to staff the shelters they already have.
Harrell paired his pledge of a more aggressive encampment approach with a promise to open new shelter beds, but he’s staring down a shelter system that may not be able to grow enough to accommodate everyone in the city’s encampments as his focus expands beyond Woodland Park.
There’s a new shelter in Queen Anne expected to open later this month that will add 41 beds, and more are underway with local and federal dollars. At the same time, the city-leased hotel shelters at the King’s Inn and the Executive Hotel Pacific will close this month.
“I truly don’t believe we have enough spaces to do the Lower Woodland [removal] and solve for figuring out the hotels. Because I think that has to be our first priority,” said Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the city’s homelessness committee.
Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss, who represents the district that includes Woodland Park, said he is working with the mayor and other local partners to get homeless people into shelters. Like at recently cleared Ballard Commons and Bitter Lake, Strauss said the removal will take as long as it takes to get everyone inside who wants to go.
“Because Woodland Park is so large, we’re going to need to do it section by section to be successful,” Strauss said. “We can’t wait for there to be enough beds for everyone in the park to move them all at once.”
Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones told Harrell and other regional leaders Thursday that finding and acquiring new sites for shelters is not the issue — it’s people to staff them. Coming into the new year, the nonprofits that run shelters in the city are stretched so thin they’re having trouble staffing existing facilities, Dones said.
Shelter nonprofits, which tend to pay their front-line staff low wages, were hit hard by the coronavirus and the ensuing labor shortage last year, with many unable to fill open positions. Seattle City Council included millions for cost-of-living raises and bonuses for those workers in this year’s budget, but even those who celebrated the increase admitted it was a Band-Aid approach to decades of under-funding.
December’s severe weather and the Omicron variant of the coronavirus caused “a massive hemorrhaging” in the shelter sector, Dones said.
“Our frontline staff cannot sustain at the wages they are at — it is not possible,” Dones said. “We are managing shelters with a person a shift, which is not good.”
The Regional Homelessness Authority took over operation of the city and county’s homeless shelters Jan. 1, and Harrell and other regional leaders approved the authority’s first budget Thursday.
In an email, a Harrell spokesperson left open the possibility of a slow approach seen at many encampments last year. Several high-profile encampment removals, including one at neighboring Greenlake, could buy the new mayor some time to make good on his campaign promises.
There have always been a small group of people, many of them older, who camped under the old-growth trees to get away from downtown, according to Paul Kostek, who’s lived in Greenlake for 25 years and chairs the Greenlake Community Council. But since the pandemic hit, the encampment has grown, and so have nearby residents’ complaints when occasional fires break out. Last year, they reached a high when cross-country running clubs canceled events at the park.
“There was a sense of, why can’t we do something? Why isn’t something being done?” Kostek said.
But as other North Seattle camps were cleared last year, people sensed a change was coming and now, it feels as if there’s more of a consensus in city hall. “Maybe that’s just what we needed, is to reset the tone in City Hall and get the mayor and City Council working together again.”
The large number of people in Woodland Park “creates a serious and unique challenge,” said a spokesperson for Harrell.
Lewis and Harrell are considering trying to open another tiny house village for the Woodland Park campers, but the tiny house strategy has met pushback from the regional authority and some advocates who feel people stay too long in the villages without enough support.