Woodland Park homeless encampment is Harrell’s first target, but shelter issues may thwart him

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Wanda Williams and Troy Repp have lived in Woodland Park for over three years. It’s like home; they have a mailbox in an old tree and a makeshift shack with a drive-thru doorknob.

But the couple is ready to leave. The camp has grown since the pandemic hit, they say they hear gunshots every night and one of them must always be there or they will get robbed.

“Some people are sincerely here because we’re going through a tough time, but a lot of these kids are on drugs. And they’re struggling,” Williams said.

For years, a constellation of camps and RVs has sprawled through the trees of Woodland Park. Mayor Bruce Harrell, who pinned his election on what he called compassionate but urgent action on encampments, unveiled his platform for the homeless last year just a few blocks away.

As he begins his term, this is the first major encampment in his sights – a “top focus”, according to a Harrell spokesperson.

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But where the estimated 80 people living in the park will go is not so clear, as hotel shelters due to the pandemic begin to close and nonprofits struggle to staff the shelters they have. already.

Harrell has paired his pledge for a more aggressive encampment approach with the pledge to open new shelter beds, but he’s looking at a shelter system that may not be able to grow enough to accommodate everyone in the city’s encampments as his objective extends beyond Woodland Park.

There’s a new shelter in Queen Anne slated to open later this month that will add 41 beds, and more are on the way with local and federal dollars. At the same time, city-leased hotel shelters at the King’s Inn and the Executive Hotel Pacific will close this month.

“I really don’t believe we have enough spaces to do the Lower Woodland [removal] and resolve to determine hotels. Because I think that has to be our first priority,” said councilman Andrew Lewis, who chairs the city’s homeless committee.

Seattle City Council member Dan Strauss, who represents the district that includes Woodland Park, said he was working with the mayor and other local partners to bring homeless people to shelters. Like at the recently cleaned up Ballard Commons and Bitter Lake, Strauss wants the pullout to take as long as it takes to get everyone who wants to go inside.

“Because Woodland Park is so big, we’re going to have to do it section by section to be successful,” Strauss said. “We can’t wait until there are enough beds for everyone in the park to move them all at once.”

Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones told Harrell and other regional leaders on Thursday that finding and acquiring new sites for shelters isn’t the problem — it’s the people to staff them. As the new year dawns, the nonprofits that run shelters in the city are under such strain that they’re struggling to staff existing facilities, Dones said.

Nonprofit shelters, which tend to pay low wages to their frontline staff, have been hit hard by the coronavirus and subsequent labor shortages in the past year, and many were unable to fill vacancies. The Seattle City Council included millions for cost-of-living increases and bonuses for these workers in this year’s budget, but even those who celebrated the increase admitted it was a band-aid approach for decades of underfunding.

Inclement weather in December and the Omicron variant of the coronavirus caused “massive bleeding” in the shelter sector, Dones said.

“Our front line staff cannot maintain the salary they are at – that is not possible,” Dones said. “We run shelters with one person per shift, which is not good.”

The Regional Homeless Authority resumed operation of city and county homeless shelters on Jan. 1, and Harrell and other regional leaders approved the authority’s first budget on Thursday.

In an email, a spokesperson for Harrell left open the possibility of a slow approach seen at many encampments over the past year. Several high-profile camp relocations, including one to nearby Greenlake, could give the new mayor time to deliver on his campaign promises.

According to Paul Kostek, who has lived in Greenlake for 25 years and chairs the Greenlake Community Council, there has always been a small group of people, many of them older, who have camped under the old trees to get away from the town center. . But since the pandemic hit, the encampment has grown, as have complaints from nearby residents when occasional fires break out. Last year, they peaked when cross-country running clubs canceled events at the park.

“There was a feeling of, why can’t we do something? Why is nothing done? said Kostek.

But as other North Seattle camps were evacuated in the past year, people felt a change was coming and now it feels like there’s more of a consensus at City Hall. “Maybe that’s exactly what we needed is to set the tone at City Hall and get the Mayor and City Council working again.”

The large number of people at Woodland Park “creates a serious and unique challenge,” a Harrell spokesperson said.

Lewis and Harrell are considering trying to open another tiny house village for Woodland Park campers, but the tiny house strategy has been pushed back by the regional authority and some advocates who feel people are staying too long in the camps. villages without enough support.

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