A flush of blown-about cherry blossom tints Gilman Playground, petals clinging to shoes and lining the bottoms of tents. Doug C., a volunteer with Homeless Organizing Community, starts walking across the dewy, bright green field and says, “I’m going to check on tents and see if anyone is asleep.”
HOC, a leaderless Facebook advocacy group of Seattle community members, has shown up to the park early to limit the loss of belongings for campers and foster a less jolting transition.
No matter what the forecasted weather is in Seattle, a scheduled tent encampment sweep will happen, as announced on the 8.5x11 sheet of paper posted.
On the assigned date, April 30, at 7 a.m., 20 HOC volunteers mobilized, spreading out to different corners and offering help to break down tents and store personal belongings for the impending 9 a.m. sweep’s start time.
At 8 a.m., Jessica T., a volunteer with HOC and a 19-year homeless advocate in Seattle, stands by a makeshift refreshment station filled with cups of coffee and donuts she’s helped supply for the waking campers. Jessica holds a firm stance that encampment sweeps should never happen unless people are in imminent danger. To her, policies like encampment sweeps signal to community members that it’s OK to be aggressive toward people experiencing homelessness.
Jessica explained that she has seen more comments from neighborhood residents expressing a desire to be violent or hostile toward people experiencing homelessness compared to previous years, both in the neighborhood Facebook groups she follows and in person.
Jessica believes this is because Seattle’s unhoused people are more visible now; more people have no other option than to live outside in the city. The pandemic’s economic tragedies have hit people who have the least the hardest. With this influx, tent encampments can no longer keep to the expected places, like freeway underpasses.
“I feel like every generation younger than me does not have any sort of collective memory of a time before this level of mass homelessness,” Jessica said.
The increase in homelessness alarms Jessica because she worries that the generations after her could normalize people living outside in flimsy shelters or without any shelter and maybe even contribute to a less empathetic or tolerant community.
Trying to move out
8:40: HOC volunteer Mark G. has spent the last hour at Gilman helping a camper clean and take down their tent, promising to hold on to it. Examining salvageable tents is the role Mark has given himself for the day, checking in with their owners and saving a tent for someone else if the current resident no longer wants it.
Mark dips his sponge back into a bucket of soapy water and explains that he has volunteered at parks in the past and met people without tents. “Then I’ll ask HOC if there’s a spare,” Mark said.
Mark echoes Jessica, saying sweeps are different — somewhat better — since Seattle’s Navigation Team was defunded in the fall.
But city officials led by Mayor Jenny Durkan have swept away unhoused people and their only shelter and belongings at a regular clip, as before, throughout the COVID quarantine, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that sweeps stop.
The Gilman sweep
Doug circles back from walking the park’s perimeter, carrying and stacking green storage bins with people’s names on the side.
Then, right at 9 a.m., Parks and Recreation and Seattle Department of Transportation employees arrive with garbage trucks, pressure washers and big black garbage bins.
The noise of garbage trucks and heavy machinery fills the air as the city employees spread out. The HOPE Team — which is a new city of Seattle program that has arisen where the Nav Team left off, but now from within the Human Services Department — moves from one tent to another, offering housing and professional care services while city clean-up crews trail behind.
Peoples’ tents, tarps and bedding are hoisted in the air by the machinery and systematically thrown in the back of a garbage truck.
One camper has been offered a hotel for 10 weeks, and Doug said he’ll store the container with their belongings. Doug doesn’t ask what campers want to save; he just wants them to know it will be safe. “We’ll probably get a storage unit for two or three months. Whatever it takes,” Doug says.
Jessica shares that she is cautiously hopeful that people will continue to get appropriate housing and professional outreach, like what is happening with these referrals for Gilman park residents. Still, she thinks the city is overpromising and won’t keep up the demand in the long run as more parks are cleared.
People living in encampments have been a controversial topic in King County for many years. Still, as COVID has lingered, there has also been a growth in the numbers of people calling public parks home.
More than ever, people are returning to their pre-pandemic routines as social gathering restrictions loosen and spring is welcoming people out. Community neighborhoods welcome the return to normalcy as Little League practice and barbecues start again, but with this come calls to action for city leaders to clear encampments in parks.
According to a statement released by the city of Seattle, this was the case at the Gilman park, due to coaches and parents of youth leagues voicing safety concerns.
According to the city, the Seattle Fire Department and the Seattle Police Department responded to Gilman Playground or the general area 72 times in the last six months.
SPD responded to 61 calls relating to public disturbances, safety concerns and other infractions, while SFD responded 11 times due to illegal burns, tent or vehicle fires, minor injuries and one serious medical incident.
While these numbers are high, researchers say people in crisis need the support of healthcare professionals, not police response. According to the Urban Institute, unsheltered people are more likely to come into contact with police, and often the interactions lead to punitive measures like fines or jail time. Studies have shown that the more a person has to interact with the criminal legal system, the harder it is for them to move past their criminal record, successfully rejoin society and maintain basics like stable employment or housing.
According to a city Parks and Recreation official, the HOPE Team had made 46 referrals as of April 30 to shelter the people who were living at Gilman park. The majority of the referrals were to hotel-based enhanced shelters and tiny home villages.
Much of the housing solutions offered to people after a sweep are short-term fixes with an end date.
Sweeps are calamitous, further disadvantaging people who have few resources. In a traumatizing and quick half hour, sweeps take people’s homes and belongings and the hard-won stability vof a place and a community.
Cal Anderson Park in December, Denny Park and University Playground in March, Miller Playfield and Gilman Playground in April, Ballard Commons Park and Albert Davis Park in May — these are some of the recent encampments the city of Seattle has swept away, despite the eviction moratoriums, despite increased care from neighbors and officials, and despite more people than ever in our region having no choice but to live unhoused.
Full names of volunteers were withheld for privacy.
Samira George covers real people living real lives in the Puget Sound. Follow her on Twitter @samirakgeorge.
Read more of the May 12-18, 2021 issue.