It wasn’t exactly a surprise to Mike Stewart when the city announced it would not open the spray park in Ballard Commons this summer due to “health and safety” reasons stemming from a homeless encampment.
Over the last year, the executive director of Ballard Alliance — a nonprofit advocacy group for businesses and residents — watched the number of park inhabitants grow to 114 and saw the number of tents and structures double to 64.
Still, the summertime loss of the spray park hits hard, not just on hot days, but also because of what it represents, Stewart said.
“It feels like the city just threw up its hands and said we don’t know what to do so we’re not going to do a thing,” he said. “It feels like the individuals in the park are forgotten and the people who use it all summer long are forgotten as well.”
The decision by Seattle Parks and Recreation prompted a torrent of criticism and concern about how the city is dealing — or not dealing — with homelessness, encampments and questions about the use of public space.
Rachel Schulkin, a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan, said the decision was made regretfully.
Before the pandemic, there were an estimated 3,700 people living unsheltered in Seattle, she said, and without a doubt COVID-19 has made it worse.
The city paused most encampment removals during the pandemic, but as Seattle moves on from coronavirus restrictions, officials have prioritized addressing encampments on playfields, parks and downtown.
Seattle has removed more than 30 encampments throughout parks and downtown, opened hundreds of new shelter spaces and hotels to people living outside and made over 600 referrals into hotel-based shelters and tiny houses, Schulkin said.
“Addressing the hundreds of encampments across more than 500 city parks and facilities as well as downtown cannot be solved overnight,” Schulkin said, adding that the mayor wants to “reinstate access to parks and downtown.”
“However, we also must be honest that the new federal resources do not scale to the true level of the crisis and resources needed to address unsheltered homelessness across the entire city,” Schulkin said.
The city does not use federal funding to remove encampments, according to mayoral spokesperson Kamaria Hightower. Rather, she said, the new federal funding supports the city’s ability to expand its 24/7 shelter and permanent housing.
Hightower said the city is removing encampments based on public safety concerns, and is also removing smaller encampments based on shelter availability.
The city’s answers are about the same as doing nothing, said Stewart.
He’s among the strong supporters of a ballot initiative to force City Hall to focus on getting people off the street called “Compassion Seattle.”
The campaign to change Seattle’s city charter temporarily and require city leaders to spend more on homelessness and human services gathered 64,000 signatures, almost twice the 33,000 needed from Seattle voters to get the amendment on the November ballot.
If voters pass it, Charter Amendment 29 would force the mayor to create 2,000 shelter or housing spaces within a year, budget 12% of the city’s general fund for homelessness and human services, and, when there is enough housing or shelter for people living outside in Seattle, keep public spaces such as parks and sidewalks free of encampments. The amendment would only be in the city charter until the end of 2027.
“I get the frustration over the spray park, especially when we had temperatures over 100,” said Josh Perme of The Bridge Care Center, which provides services for people with unstable shelter. “But for me it comes down to who is the park for?”
Perme thinks it behooves the city and its residents to grapple with the growing crisis and to be wary of policy driven by fear.
“How many mortgage payments can you miss?” he asked. “When the eviction moratorium finally lifts, there are going to be some people in trouble and visible poverty is a terrifying reminder of how close we all are.”
City Councilmember Dan Strauss, whose district includes Ballard, said the decision to close the spray park has not been popular with anyone nor does he believe it is effective.
“Everyone wants the spray park to be open this summer,” he said.
The decision to not open the spray park highlights the need for a JustCARE-like model, Strauss said, referring to the program that uses hotels to shelter people who, if it weren’t for the pandemic, might otherwise be arrested for low-level crimes.
“Addressing homelessness with housing solves for the root of this crisis,” Strauss said. “We should not be using our parks, libraries and buses as our homeless shelters.”
Sara Bates helps feed people with unstable shelter at Edible Hope Kitchen, a ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church that’s across the street from the Ballard Commons. She also lives in the neighborhood. She was disappointed when she learned the spray park would be closed for several reasons.
She thinks the park’s closure — and many of the city’s actions regarding encampments — are based on people’s unfounded fear of people living outside. She believes asking the city to open hotels and continue working toward more affordable housing are reasonable steps toward a solution.
She has an 8-month-old daughter who she’d love to take to play in the water on hot days.
The encampment wouldn’t have stopped her.
“I am more comfortable with that encampment than I am with a lot of other situations in Seattle,” she said. “I have a good relationship with the inhabitants and consider them as much my neighbors as the people who live in my apartment building.”