Addressing Homelessness in Seattle’s Parks

Please note: following is a letter, written by Park Commissioner Tom Byers and addressed to Mayor Durkan and the City Council, addressing homelessness in Seattle’s parks.  We at Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks support his recommendations.  We greatly appreciate his phased, balanced approach to providing shelter and resources, as we do not condone park sweeps that fail to offer lasting and attainable alternatives.

Indeed, the original Olmsted vision for parks was imbued with principles of social reform: public parks were intended as democratizing and humanizing spaces, for the common good, where everyone is free to gather.

January 21, 2021

Dear Mayor Durkan and Members of the City Council,

At least five times a week I take a long walk in one of our wonderful city parks. The exercise, fresh air, and occasional wild-life sightings help to clear my head and maintain some semblance of physical and mental health during these dark times. I am not alone. On this morning’s hour-long walk in a cold rain, I passed sixty-four others in the park, the vast majority of them women and small children. On days when even a trace of sunshine breaks through, the numbers are much higher.

The pandemic has made many of us more aware of how important our park system is, not only for our well-being as individuals, but to our sense of community. We value the parks as Seattle’s common ground, open to everyone, no matter their circumstances. 

But today that is no longer true. There are many Seattle neighborhoods in which our fellow citizens don’t have the life-sustaining access to parks that my neighbors and I enjoy. Some neighborhoods didn’t have enough parks to begin with, and the limited park space they have has been taken over by tent encampments. 

Ironically, our elected leaders enabled these occupations of our parks in the name of social justice. Their reasoning, as I understand it, was that Gov. Inslee’s order to “shelter in place” during the first days of the pandemic meant that homeless individuals who were then living in the parks should be able to remain there undisturbed. There was logic in that viewpoint last spring, but it has long since evaporated. Ten months into the pandemic, the city has failed to make tangible progress towards establishing temporary and long-term solutions to the housing crisis, allowing city parks to become the best option for hundreds of unhoused individuals to seek shelter. Indeed, the number of individuals living in parks has appeared to increase as the economic effects of the pandemic become more severe. Over time park encampments have mushroomed tenfold with newcomers who cannot claim they are simply sheltering in place. 

Our Park Superintendent estimates that roughly 12 percent of our city’s parks have encampments large enough to discourage or prevent use by other park visitors. Many neighborhood park advocates believe the percentage is much higher. Most of those parks are in densely populated areas, where most residents are enduring the pandemic in apartments that don’t have back yards. Those families and individuals are dependent for fresh air and exercise on the parks nearby their homes, parks that are now filled with the tents of our unhoused neighbors who have few places to go besides public parks and lack access to essential services that are critical to maintaining public health during a global pandemic.

For those of us who believe in social justice, the current policy of benign neglect is a double-barreled failure. It is neither just nor progressive to deprive families and individuals of their ability to use their parks as they were intended to be used. Nor is it just and progressive to leave the people in those tents — some of whom are suffering from physical disabilities, mental illness, and addictions — to sleep in tents through a long and rainy Seattle winter.

Social justice demands we do better on both counts. It will not be easy. We did not come to this predicament overnight, and we will not find our way to higher ground quickly or cheaply. But for the good of the entire community, we need to find our way. Here are some steps toward that goal: 

The Mayor and Council must overcome their past differences and work together to implement a strategy to end the epidemic of homelessness that is jeopardizing everything else we are trying to achieve as a community. It has been several years since homelessness was declared an emergency by a previous Mayor, yet most Seattle residents still do not perceive that City Hall has any coherent plan to meet the challenge, and the tents in the parks seem to be evidence that no such plan exists. We need a strategy that mobilizes all agencies of the city, and the community as a whole, to achieve the goal of restoring homeless individuals and families to full participation in the life of the community and preventing others from becoming homeless. The Mayor must identify a leader who will be in charge of implementing that strategy and hold that leader accountable for making progress. The Council must provide the necessary resources to enable city agencies to play their roles effectively.

The city government must also renew its commitment to restore our parks so that all Seattle residents can use them for the purposes for which they are intended. As part of its comprehensive strategy, the city government should announce its intent to phase out the tent encampments and then enforce the long-standing regulations that have prohibited camping in the parks. The phase-out of the park encampments should be accomplished through the following measures (some of which are already underway, but under-resourced):

  • Active outreach and engagement with residents of the encampments 
  • Referral to shelter and affordable housing as available 
  • To the extent existing shelter or housing resources are insufficient, establish sanctioned encampments at non-park sites where appropriate sanitation and human services can be provided. First priority should be sites owned by churches, public agencies, or non-profit organizations that are willing to “sponsor” an encampment and assist with outreach and linkages to health and human services
  • Until better options can be created, upgrade the sanctioned encampments with the types of facilities provided in refugee camps and state-sanctioned farmworker housing during the cherry harvest. That translates into OSHA tents, mobile restrooms and shower facilities
  • Rapidly develop more “tiny-house villages” like those described here. The tiny-house villages are a big step up from tent encampments. They provide shelter, heat, and electricity in the individual units, and access to shared restrooms, showers, and kitchen facilities. The units also provide security for residents and their belongings because they can be locked by the resident. The importance of this feature is described powerfully in this short video. The existing villages in Seattle are managed by the Low-income Housing Institute (LIHI) and operate under a detailed code of conduct that each resident agrees to abide by. Each village has an advisory committee composed of neighbors to ensure they are well-managed. During her first year in office, Mayor Durkan stated she intended to create 1,000 units in tiny-house villages. About 380 have been developed to date    
  • Invest in the primary health, mental health, and addiction care services available in the community and strengthen the connections between the providers and residents of the sanctioned encampments, shelters, and tiny home villages  
  • Expedite the production of permanent supportive housing
  • Substantially increase funding for employment programs that help homeless individuals. A leading example is the Seattle Conservation Corps, which is operated by the Parks Department and employs and trains homeless individuals to complete park improvements and other public works. The Corps has an excellent track record of helping individuals regain their place in the community, but its enrollment has been limited to 60-70 per year by budget concerns. In light of the damage that has been done to the park system in the past year by cuts in the maintenance budget, plus the freeze on hiring temporary workers during the summer, now would be an excellent time to expand the Corps by recruiting some of able-bodied and resilient people living in the shelters and tents and deploying the Corps to repair the damage that has been done to the park system during the pandemic. The Corps could also help with construction of tiny-home villages
  • These actions can be paid for, at least in large part, by avoiding costs the City is incurring to mitigate the impact of the encampments on the parks (garbage collection, sanitation, etc.); the cost of the police presence necessary during “sweeps”; and other costs associated with allowing people to remain homeless (911 calls, emergency room visits, etc.) The expansion of the Conservation Corps and other measures to restore and enhance the park system could be funded by a modest increase in the levy rate of the Metropolitan Park District, which can be done with five votes of the Council and the approval of the Mayor.

These are the obvious first steps to meet the twin crises evident in our parks. A more complete list of actions will need to be created, and it must be forged by those most affected: by the families and individuals in the city neighborhoods who have been unable to use their parks for their intended purposes; by individuals who have experienced homelessness; by advocates for the mentally ill, and chemically addicted; and by the dedicated individuals who are working to reform the systems that have badly failed to protect both our parks and those who have pitched their tents within them.

Sincerely,

Tom Byers, Member, Board of Park Commissioners and Park District Oversight Committee

Co-signers:  Andrea Akita, Jessica Farmer, Kelly McCaffrey, Members of the Board of Park Commissioners and Park District Oversight Committee; Dennis Cook, Even Hundley and Jessica Vu, Members of the Board of Park Commissioners; and Dewey Potter, Member of the Park District Oversight Committee

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