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The Hidden Crisis in the Woods: Part 2

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It’s tee time at Jackson Park golf course, part of Seattle’s vast network of public spaces. But go beyond the greens and onto nearby trails leading into the deep woods. It looks far worse than any bad shot into the rough. 

“I had a friend show me up here,” says Champ, who’s homeless.  

Surrounded by the cover of lush trees and an abundance space, Champ says he’s lived alone in peace at this encampment for almost three years. However, he says that’s now changing. 

“Usually when somebody gets kicked out they go somewhere else — where they’re going they’re going to raise hell in that area cause they’re pissed,” says Champ. 

He believes the city and state’s recent crackdown on camping in public places is pushing some homeless people into the deep woods. He says, “Whenever they’re going, they’re mad, ’cause they got kicked out.”

And Champs says the trash, needles, and associated problems are starting to pile up at Jackson Park. So he’s trying to leave once outreach workers come to assist.   

Problem is, it’s hard for them to get out here — especially with the rough terrain. And in many cases, these locations aren’t even on the radar.  

Kaylee Gordon hopes it remains that way here in West Seattle, until she can figure out her next step.  She says, “I’m the type of person who likes to be away from people.” 

A spokesperson for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office says they’re aware of the exodus into the woods. But he won’t say when crews will move in to address the situation on city property.    

Wittney Silvera says she’s choosing the forest until the right type of housing is available for her and her boyfriend. “Any type of housing would be reasonable,” she says. “We don’t want to separate from each other.” 

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority is primarily responsible for providing services and shelter before and after an encampment clean up.  For Silvera, however, the problem is she doesn’t know when the agency is going to provide help where she’s staying. When I asked her how many county outreach workers have come to offer services in the past year, she said maybe once. 

Similar scenarios are playing out in other hidden parts of the region. 

In White Center, several people are living on this environmentally sensitive area. But the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks says nothing can be done until its protocols are updated by county leaders. And currently, no one is measuring the potential environmental damage. 

King County Council member Reagan Dunn says the county is coming up with all kinds of excuses to avoid moving these encampments.   

“The directive on Covid is for law enforcement not to disturb or mess with these camps because of the threat of covid,” he says. 

But the pandemic is no longer a factor for efforts by Seattle and the Washington Department of Transportation to clear public right of ways.    

“When Seattle decides to crack down, it pushes that homeless population into the woods,” says Dunn. He notes that many prefer “to live free in acres of land maybe down by the river and do all the drugs they want.” 

Last year, Dunn proposed legislation that would give the sheriff’s office authority to move into these wooded areas and clear encampments if shelter beds were available. 

But the bill didn’t pass in the full council — Joe McDermott and Girmay Zahilay opposed the plan. I asked these councilmembers why, but they never got back to me.  Executive Dow Constantine declined our interview requests as well. 

“And that is because the leadership at King County government doesn’t want to upset their political base—their political constituencies say leave those people alone — don’t enforce our laws, let them do drugs, let them be happy out in the woods,” argues Dunn. 

So Dunn introduced a new bill today, hoping for a different outcome.  Dunn’s new pilot program would form an interagency task force responsible for cleaning up current and future encampments. That also includes connecting the homeless residents with shelter and services. The task force would include the Department of Community and Health Services, the Local Services’ Road Division, and the Sheriff’s Office, working in collaboration with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. The focus initially would be on Green River Road, between Kent and Auburn in unincorporated King County.  

“Unless you are willing to show some types of tough love in the homeless battle, you’re never going to get anywhere,” says Dunn. 

But it’s not a done deal. Dunn’s proposal still needs to be voted on by the entire council. This time around he’s also trying to create an on-line dashboard to track all the encampments in King County. But unlike Seattle’s dashboard, he wants it to show exact addresses, not just neighborhoods.

King County’s 2020 Point-in-Time count found that 64% of the chronically homeless report battling a substance use disorder and 73% report battling a mental illness.

Pat Pawlak, Division Chief of Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority, highlights another problem in the woods. “So I do know that we’ve had some fires up there,” he says.  

He isn’t blaming all the problems on the homeless staying in the woods. But he’s hoping the policy makers consider the challenges first responders face trying to help in these tough conditions. 

“There are the dangers of the needles and things like that, which you’ve seen firsthand — so obviously those are the concerns we have, and you also want to consider fire fighter safety,” says Pawlak. 

Right behind South Seattle College, the West Duwamish Greenbelt is a mess after a homeless take over. But a school spokesperson says he’s not sure if this is even part of their property or responsibility.   

Instead of waiting around to find out, concerned neighbors called in Andrea Suarez with We Heart Seattle, a non-profit focused on encampment clean ups and helping people living on the streets find housing. 

“This is a revolving door, people have come through here for years,” says Suarez. 

Suarez scouted the area for an hour and says she’s trying to coordinate with the college to address the problem.

“And this is a perfect example of what’s not working,” says Suarez. At the very least, she wants volunteers to clear the trash and abandoned tents later this summer.   

“Somebody has to do this. This is an environmental and humanitarian crisis,” says Suarez.