After months of tension between employees at King County Courthouse and the encampment of over 50 unhoused residents, City Hall Park closed Friday, Aug. 13. JustCARE, which is a multiagency nonprofit that receives funding from both the city and county, was tasked with removing the park’s residents with its sweep alternative model.
According to Chloe Gale from REACH, which is one of JustCARE’s partner organizations, the multiagency’s service providers worked for six weeks to create individualized plans for 65 unhoused park residents, the majority of whom were relocated to long-term transitional housing.
The JustCARE model has been praised by city officials, but others still dispute whether or not their anti-sweep mission culminated in what they are trying to replace.
“This is not a sweep,” JustCARE said in a statement the day before the park’s closure. “This is not a removal. This is not a clearing. This is the opposite: taking the time needed to make meaningful offers of shelter and support to people based on their actual needs and situation, while respecting individual self-determination.”
Three mutual aid workers who have been involved in the City Hall Park encampment for over a year disagree. To them, what happened Aug. 13 was, without a doubt, a sweep.
JustCARE remains firm that their approach is “the opposite of a sweep.” Lisa Daugaard, the executive director of the Public Defender Association that was involved in the JustCARE project, said “In a way, nothing happened on Friday.”
Though they were on opposite sides of the police tape the day of the park’s closure, the mutual aid workers and nonprofit outreach organizations both say they want to work together to find better solutions to getting people out of parks and into housing.
“It would have been nice if maybe they (JustCARE) trusted us mutual aid workers,” said Joy Randall, who also said she emailed JustCARE a month ago with hopes of collaboration and did not receive a response. “We may have different approaches, but we both want these people safe, we want these people housed.”
Equinox, a mutual aid worker who regularly does sweep support, arrived at City Hall Park with coffee and breakfast just before 7 a.m. on the morning of the closure. The park was already closed off with crime tape. She said JustCARE workers showed up around 7:30 a.m. and were “pretty adamant on being the only ones at that point to talk to the residents or help them or anything like that.”
“We didn’t decline any offer of help,” Daugaard said of the mutual aid workers. “And we didn’t really need any particular help.”
According to Daugaard, and confirmed by other eyewitnesses, there were three residents remaining: a man who had declined various shelter offers from JustCARE for months, a woman with high acuity mental health concerns and a young man who was new to the park, having supposedly shown up overnight. They were all at least offered shelter and ultimately led off the park grounds by JustCARE outreach workers, Duagaard said.
A little after 8 a.m., about 30 police officers, many of who were bike cops, showed up to the park, according to Equinox. The three mutual aid workers said there were more officers than they had seen at sweeps in the last two months combined. Dee Powers, a mutual aid worker and eyewitness, also noted that bike cops are not typically deployed at encampment sweeps, but rather protests.
Powers said the bike cops “made darn sure” that the mutual aid workers were pushed back on the other side of the tape. The outreach team from JustCARE was allowed on the same side of the tape as the police, Powers said.
“They (the police) wanted nothing to do with us on Friday,” Powers said.
The police’s separation came as JustCARE and mutual aid workers were trying to have a conversation that Daugaard calls “so needed.” According to Daugaard, JustCARE was trying to explain the work they had done leading up to the park’s closure.
“That was not an optimal place to talk all that through, but I am confident that we can,” Daugaard said.
Based on what Randall heard from the residents she has engaged with for over a year, she doubts JustCARE’s claims of doing six weeks of outreach.
Daugaard said she wishes they had another half hour to talk with the mutual aid workers and protestors. Karen Salinas, director of outreach at REACH, calls it a “missed opportunity.”
“I’ve worked with several mutual aid groups already and they’re all so happy to help, and I’m happy they are too because we can't do everything by ourselves: We need them. We need help,” Salinas said. “But that also takes a lot of alignment and recognizing, you know, what do we bring to the table as service providers? What do they bring to the table as community members? And how do we do this together? Because if we're constantly at odds, the people who miss out are our clients.”
Daugaard said it is her understanding that the police were there to handle protesters, not park residents.
While Daugaard said none of the three residents were removed by police, Equinox said three or four police officers approached one of the tents which she believes could be stressful itself.
“It was really unnecessary,” Equinox said, echoed by Randall who bemoaned the wasted resources associated with sending out 30 police officers. “It was very violent. It was, I think, very triggering to a lot of the people who were there to just have such a really prominent (police) presence.”
Of the residents assisted by JustCARE, 10 were given tiny homes, two were sent to the Executive Hotel Pacific, three to the Kings Inn, two to the Red Lion, 21 to other enhanced shelters and 28 to 30 to JustCARE’s shelter.
The mutual aid workers called this the “bare minimum.”
“JustCARE is definitely a small step up from the previous methods of sweeping, but it is still a band aid and it is still not good enough for what we need out there,” Powers said.
Based on numbers provided by Daugaard, roughly 50 residents of City Hall Park are now in shelter spaces. The mutual aid workers advocate for solutions that go beyond temporary shelter options that are often strict and unsafe.
Despite criticism, the mutual aid workers see JustCARE’s potential.
“In theory, the JustCARE model is a better alternative than what they (sweeps) have been, but it’s not a solution by any means right now,” Equinox said of the nonprofit’s outreach efforts. “If they can stick to their actual mission — which says they won’t involve the police, they’ll do that hard outreach, and they’ll try to connect people with things that meet them where they’re at, as opposed to shelters — then JustCARE has the potential to be a solution. But I think that they need to turn to the community more.”
Hannah Krieg studied journalism at the University of Washington. She is especially interested in covering politics, social issues and anything that gives her an excuse to speak with activists.
Read more of the Aug. 25-31, 2021 issue.