Campsites and conditions in Seattle parks come under scrutiny as coronavirus pandemic continues

Calling the situation in many of Seattle’s large parks “a spiraling public health and safety crisis,” more than a dozen business and neighborhood groups sent a letter Monday to the mayor and city council urging them Act.

Dozens of tents have appeared in Seattle parks, the letter said, also arguing that there has been an increase in waste, drug use, violence and maintenance issues in outdoor spaces. The letter called on Durkan and the council to create an interdepartmental team to address the growing challenges.

“These issues are complex, but that does not absolve the city of its responsibility,” the letter said.

There are more people living in the parks than before the pandemic, outreach workers and those camping there agree. They say more housing is needed to get people inside, with some saying they are demonized for issues beyond their control.

The city’s 485 parks have become more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, but programs in the parks have been suspended and maintenance has been postponed, according to Monday’s letter. Meanwhile, the pandemic has disrupted Seattle’s shelter system, and the city has largely stopped removing homeless settlements, in part because federal and state public health officials have warned that the dispersal of homeless people. people could spread the virus.

“Homeless people remain very vulnerable to COVID-19,” the disease caused by the coronavirus, said TJ Cosgrove, division director at Public Health – Seattle & King County, in a statement advising against the removal of camps during the pandemic .

Cosgrove said this is especially important now that King County cases are on the rise.

“Life just got harder, especially when COVID hit the homeless and low-income people,” said Jazmin Sanders, who pitched his tent months ago among other places in Denny Park in South Lake Union. “I just ended up here, like I was rolling down a hill.”

Monday’s letter complained about the destruction of sprinklers and flowers in the newly renovated park. Many campers sleeping under the old conifers and the shiny skyscrapers that rise above the park have worked hard to keep the area clean, even before the city brought in portable toilets and a dumpster. , they say.

Workers at the nonprofit REACH, under contract with the city, have seen an increase in camping in the parks over the past year, said program director Chloe Gale. As some camps under the freeways have been swept away and fenced in, more people are camping in places they have never been before, including parks near meals and other amenities, Gale said.

Gale said REACH workers have been meeting with park groups and staff at Seattle Parks and Recreation over the past few months, and have been able to work with homeless people to try to keep the parks open to everyone.

“Sometimes that unfortunately means looking for a better place to camp,” Gale said. “Most people are actually very open to this conversation. The problem is, we need shelters and hotels.

Business and civic leaders from Ballard, the International District of Chinatown, Capitol Hill, Denny Triangle, downtown, Georgetown, Lake City, Pioneer Square and West Seattle Junction say the conditions in various parks are unhealthy and dangerous for the people who live there and for the people who want to use the spaces for recreation.

“Our parks and public spaces have become dangerous and chaotic,” said Monday’s letter, which was copied to Parks Superintendent Jesús Aguirre and Police Chief Adrian Diaz, among others.

Many potential visitors to the parks are now staying away, the letter said, describing the harsh conditions in 13 parks in dense neighborhoods without including data relating to public health and public safety at the sites.

Seattle Central College President Sheila Edwards Lange, whose campus adjoins Cal Anderson Park, signed the letter. Capitol Hill Park has been technically closed since the summer, when protests erupted in the neighborhood, although people continued to camp and hang out there.

Edwards Lange had concerns about the park before the pandemic and protests led the city to close the park in June, and his concerns only grew, she said.

“It’s just not sure,” she said, citing broken glass, graffiti and poor lighting. “We would like the park to be open and activated.

The letter claims Albert Davis Park in Lake City has “become completely unusable” due to an encampment with nearly 30 tents. More than 40 tents and structures have appeared at Ballard Commons Park, and more than 75 tents occupy City Hall Park downtown, according to the letter.

Garbage collection, pressure washing, graffiti removal and other maintenance work have been halted at Hing Hay Park in the Chinatown International District, according to the letter.

“The city has not responded to repeated requests to maintain outdoor seating and resume concierge service at Hing Hay Park,” the letter said.

James Sido, spokesperson for the Downtown Seattle Association, did not respond directly when asked if the letter was intended to pressure city hall to evict homeless people from parks.

Seattle Parks and Recreation is overwhelmed right now, Sido said.

“The city needs to get these spaces back online and make sure they are safe to use for everyone,” with Seattle utilities and the city’s Department of Social Services needed to manage waste and the helping the homeless, he said.

“The city should prioritize outreach and shelter spaces for those who live outside, and develop a real plan to maintain these spaces,” Sido said.

City council, which has sought to block camp removals by the Durkan administration’s police-assisted navigation team, adopted a tentative deal on Monday to fund more outreach until the end of the year and, at the same time, to keep the city somewhat involved in coordinating this work.

Durkan welcomed the move and noted that his 2021 budget plan, currently under review by the council, would open 425 short-term accommodation beds and then increase spending on programs that house people quickly.

Since the move was restricted in March, the navigation team has made hundreds of site visits, cleanings and shelter referrals while distributing thousands of hygiene and meal kits, the mayor’s office said. . Registration at shelters increased after the start of the pandemic, the office said.

With City Hall now under more pressure over conditions in the parks, Sanders said removing the tents should not be the solution.

“The problem shouldn’t be that there are too many tents here. The problem should be why there are so many people without help, ”Sanders said.

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