The head-to-head race for Seattle mayor kicked off Thursday as Bruce Harrell held a news conference in the Green Lake neighborhood to blast City Hall for what he described as “inaction” on homelessness in parks.
Pitted against City Council President M. Lorena González in the Nov. 2 general election, Harrell vowed to “change the narrative” on homelessness, move more people inside and keep public spaces clear. González’s campaign responded quickly, questioning the details and Harrell’s promises.
Harrell spoke to reporters and residents next to Lower Woodland Park, where many people are living in tents. Seattle Public Schools has moved cross country races from the hilly park to other sites due to concerns about encampments, he noted.
“What we have to do is prove to the public that we’re headed in the right direction,” said Harrell, a council member from 2008 to 2019, arguing that current leaders aren’t treating the homelessness crisis with enough urgency.
In a statement later Thursday, González’s campaign agreed that Seattle, “like many West Coast cities, is experiencing a dire housing and homelessness emergency.” But Harrell “outlined no serious plan today to pay for the shelters and services that are needed,” said González’s campaign manager, Alex Koren.
Harrell won 34% of the vote in the city’s crowded Aug. 3 primary, advancing with González, who won 32%. He received more support from business leaders, while González was supported by more labor unions.
Both candidates are former lawyers, and they overlapped for several years on the council. Harrell has staked his candidacy on a pledge to “restore the vibrancy” of the city. González has stressed she would stand up for working people, rather than large corporations.
Lower Woodland Park
Lower Woodland Park is one of several across the city where tents have been pitched in recent months and years. The city mostly stopped removing encampments from public spaces in 2020, based on public health concerns about spreading COVID-19, and turnover in shelters slowed.
“This led to a significant increase in visible homelessness,” said Kamaria Hightower, a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan.
The opening of hotel-based shelters with services earlier this year has brought some people inside, with 214 enrolled from April to June, and the city has resumed removals, carrying out more than 30 recently, Hightower said.
Seattle expects 1,300 additional affordable housing units and 400 additional shelter spaces to come online soon, which should “allow the city to address some of the largest and most dangerous encampments,” she said.
“But with approximately 4,000 individuals living unsheltered in Seattle, the scale” of the crisis means the region, the state and the federal government must provide more help, Hightower said.
At Lower Woodland Park, tents are clustered in grassy areas and are pitched between trees. The Department of Parks and Recreation visits the park weekly to remove trash and needles and to pass out trash bags, Hightower said. Seattle Public Utilities also picks up trash from the encampments, and city-contracted outreach workers visit the park regularly, she said.
Still, since May, there have been just two referrals to shelters for people living in the park, Hightower said.
“The encampment at Lower Woodland is on the city’s priority removal list but without a removal date due to shelter availability,” she said.
Chloe Gale, program director for the city-contracted outreach team, REACH, said shelter referrals have been prioritized for encampments scheduled to be cleared.
“There’s not a lot of incentive to do referrals for sites that are not on the calendar,” Gale said.
Forey Duckett, a Green Lake resident who attended Thursday’s news conference, has coached track at Lower Woodland Park, he said.
“Nobody wants people to be homeless,” but drugs and drug dealers are part of the problem, which contributes to making the park unsafe, he said.
With kids, “you’re not going to run through a bunch of tents,” said Duckett, 51. “People don’t want to be in danger.”
Carissa, who didn’t want her last name published because of her vulnerable situation, said she and many others camping in the park shouldn’t be considered dangerous.
The 28-year-old became homeless after her father in Everett was laid off from his job and died by suicide, upending her life and leading her to be evicted, she said. She moved to Lower Woodland Park after her camping spot in downtown Seattle was cleared, she said.
“We’re not violent. We’re unfortunate,” she said, and many people self-medicate with drugs to cope with mental health challenges. “I don’t think there are a lot of bad people here, just people who need professional help.”
Carissa is concerned about the situation, too. Trash piles up, there are rats, and her belongings have been stolen. She would jump at the chance to move inside, partly because she’s worried about colder weather, but has not been offered housing by outreach workers who have visited, she said.
“This is a beautiful park and it shouldn’t be violated” with trash, she said.
On Thursday, Harrell outlined a homelessness plan that closely resembles the “Compassion Seattle” city charter amendment that a judge struck from the Nov. 2 ballot last week. The Compassion Seattle campaign has appealed.
The city should — similar to what the charter amendment proposes — add 1,000 units of “emergency supportive housing” by mid-2022 and another 1,000 units by the end of that year, Harrell said.
The city also should — as proposed in the amendment — commit 12% of its general fund to combat homelessness, he said. The city already is spending about that much on the crisis, including more than $200 million this year.
Providing an additional 2,000 units of shelter could cost as much as $100 million, the Compassion Seattle campaign has said.
Harrell said some already-budgeted money can be reprioritized. He also pointed to American Rescue Plan Act assistance, with a $116 million tranche expected next year. And he said dollars can be raised through private donations from businesses and residents.
González’s campaign pushed back Thursday. She has promised to pursue higher taxes on large companies and well-off people, and she has opposed Compassion Seattle, noting the amendment includes no dedicated funding mechanism.
Harrell “refuses to call on the wealthy and big corporations to pay their fair share to solve this problem,” Koren, her campaign manager, said in his statement.
“Without funding, his promises of more shelter and more services are just more of the same empty promises we’ve heard for years.”
Koren said González would do more than add shelter beds. “She will address poverty, high housing costs and other root causes of homelessness. She knows if we keep doing the same thing over and over again, we’ll never make real progress,” he said.
Asked how he would deal with encampments like in Lower Woodland Park, Harrell said he would send more mental health counselors and housing advocates to the encampments. “You will see caseworkers at the tents,” he said.
Harrell drew applause from some neighbors when he said: “We will ensure that our city parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces, sidewalks, and streets remain open and clear of encampments.” Yet removals that shift people to other public spaces rather than inside are ineffective, he added.
Asked about unsheltered people who may decline referrals to shelters and services, he said, “I just think there has to be consequences,” without naming those consequences. Some people struggling with drug and alcohol challenges “are in denial,” he added, saying solutions should be handled on a “case-by-case basis.”
People decline referrals for various reasons, including bad prior experiences at shelters and personal circumstances that shelters can’t accommodate. Referrals can’t be made at all when shelters are full.
“Punishing people experiencing homelessness for government’s failure to build adequate and available shelter and housing is wrong, though unsurprising for a candidate who routinely uses our unsheltered neighbors as political props,” Koren said, referring to Harrell.
Staff reporter Scott Greenstone contributed.