Lower Queen Anne resident Mike Fagerness said he avoids cutting through the neighborhood’s many connecting greenbelts to get to his apartment at night because he is concerned about safety. He recalled one late night this summer taking a shortcut through Kinnear Park and seeing and hearing what he perceived to be homeless campers all throughout the trail.
While it’s virtually impossible to determine how many people may live within the foresty patches on Queen Anne Hill at a given time, the neighborhood has had a history of illegal encampments before.
In 2008, city cleanup crews, armed with poles and special clothing to protect against syringe punctures, removed almost 15 tons of debris from camps throughout the greenbelt.
For Queen Anne residents, removing the camps from the greenbelts mean preserving public access to the trails and protecting against the accumulation of trash and erosion. For those campers without homes to go to, it means possibly losing much of their belongings and making a decision to accept city assistance or move on without it.
Don Harper, the Parks Committee chair of the Queen Anne Community Council (QACC), said he receives about one complaint per month about people camping in the greenbelts, which are owned by a number of different entities, including the Department of Transportation, Seattle Parks and Recreation and Seattle Pacific University.
“If you ever get a chance to tour the encampments in the greenbelt, you will find that we’re not talking Boy Scouts up there camping,” Harper said. “Generally speaking, they don’t have a pack-it-in, pack-it-out mentality. They know how to take the garbage and stuff out there, but they don’t know how to take it back out and drop it off in the garbage cans.”
The slopes in Queen Anne are particularly susceptible to erosion. In creating makeshift encampments, Harper explained, homeless campers dig holes, cut down trees and bushwhack trails that contribute to erosion.
According to Seattle Police spokesperson Mark Jamieson, the department has not received any specific complaints about encampments in Queen Anne. However, he added that complaints and police reports “do not account for residency status” so it’s difficult to connect the incidences with homeless campers.
A long process
Harper said it’s important that people understand the current process in dealing with homeless campers. In the past, Harper said he dealt with complaints of homeless encampments by taking a photo of the camp in question and notifying the city of the location. Illegal campers would be immediately asked to leave.
Today, there’s a reporting process set up through the city’s Customer Service Bureau by which citizens may file a complaint with the city on-line. It is then determined which entity owns the green patch of park in question. Campers are given notice to leave and a time period that they must leave by, and are offered city services, Harper explained.
“What happens now is it takes a little longer to get an encampment removed from a park or a greenspace,” Harper said. “If you’re a person who wants to use the park, then it takes too long. If you are sympathetic to the homeless, then it probably happens too quickly.”
And under Seattle Municipal Code 18.12.278, the parks department and Seattle Police may also ban individuals from Seattle parks for periods of up to one year.
In a 2011 letter to Mayor Mike McGinn, the Seattle Human Rights Commission said the city’s park bans have been issued disproportionately against people of color. The commission also said the city’s current policy places too much power in the hands of Parks officers, who act as prosecutor, judge and jury for campers.
“The rules became stricter in how you handle the homeless encampments,” Harper said. “In some ways, it takes longer now: There’s a little more bureaucracy and more of an impediment to removing the homeless encampments.
“The good side of that is that the people who are homeless and are living inside [the greenbelts] have more of a chance to leave,” Harper continued. “And if they really need help, if there are people that need to be rescued, then it’s an excellent opportunity for them because people get involved and try to explain how they can get help and how to get into shelters.… If you can rescue just one, then that’s good.”
For everyone’s use
Harper said that while addressing homelessness is difficult — most understandably for campers who may not have anywhere else to go — he feels Queen Anne residents should be able to also make use of the trails, parks and greenbelts.
“As citizens who want to use the greenbelts, there’s trails for us to cut down from the top of Queen Anne down to Elliott [Avenue],” Harper said. “Over on the east side, you can go in there near a couple blocks south of West Boston [Street] and that will take you down to West Galer [Street] on Aurora [Avenue].”
Harper said Queen Anne’s struggle with homelessness is one that’s felt all throughout the city.
“You go over to Magnolia, there’s greenbelts,” Harper said. “You go to West Seattle, there’s greenbelts. Both the east and west sides of Beacon Hill have huge greenbelts. And this problem with homeless encampments is in all of them. To me, once people don’t feel safe walking in our parks, then that’s just wrong. There’s just got to be a better solution — that’s the thing.”
People who see illegal activities in the greenbelts, parks or anywhere else are encouraged to call 911 so police officers can investigate.
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