Growing Seattle homeless encampments bring new problems, mounting frustration

SEATTLE — Whether or not you were a fan of Seattle’s Navigation Team — now that the team is gone, residents are noticing unsanctioned homeless encampments are growing in both size and number.

Take a drive around Ballard on streets from the Fred Meyer to the Commons, and you’ll find at least five encampments — at Leary Way Northwest and Ninth Avenue Northwest, near the Seattle electric substation at Northwest 45th and Eighth Avenue, on another triangular patch of land at Northwest 52nd and 17th Avenue, behind Safeway at 14th and Northwest Market, and at the Ballard Commons.

“It was bad before, and this pandemic has made it much, much worse,” said Shawn Telford, a Ballard resident.

KIRO 7 has heard from concerned residents about growing encampments from the SoDo neighborhood to near Jackson Park just south of Shoreline. And their frustration is mounting.

People are fed up — but also worried those living unsheltered are getting left behind.

Josh Christensen lives near the Ballard Commons and sees more people struggling.

“It’s at least doubled in size since last summer,” Christensen said. “A  lot of people who can’t make ends meet,” he said.

He and other neighbors are teaming up to deliver hot meals to those unsheltered and call themselves Peace Meals 206.

“Try to take care of people. There are people who are desperate there,” Christensen said.

He said he had qualms about Seattle’s Navigation Team. “It seemed like they were there more to enforce orders than provide services,” Christensen said.

Since March 16, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Navigation Team stopped clearing encampments, except in “extreme circumstances.”

A spokesperson from Seattle’s Human Services Department said in an email, “From April – Present (September 24), there have been seven encampment removals compared to 451 removals during the same time period in 2019.”

Seattle’s City Council had voted earlier in the week (Sept. 22) on a 2020 budget modification that included eliminating the Navigation Team entirely, “including laying off Human Services Department employees who conduct outreach to people living unsheltered,” HSD spokesperson Kevin Mundt said in an email.

But now, people and businesses stated that along with more encampments popping up comes more problems.

Some complaints are familiar — property crime, hypodermic needles and human waste. But now, Ballard residents said they hear loud noises: hammering and noises from tools from multiple encampments in the middle of the night.

“They’re especially loud at night with power tools, compressors, pounding — like they’re building something. And they’re arguing a lot,” Telford said.

Another resident in a different area of Ballard said he needs to wear earplugs and have fans on at night to drown out the noise of machinery.

Other encampments bring different troubles.

KIRO7 reported on a metal shop inside a large homeless encampment near Jackson Park Golf Course that was spewing noxious fumes.

There is another large camp near Thornton Creek in north Seattle. It’s a public park with fragile, protected wetlands. But now structures have been nailed to trees, and neighbors said wastewater and oil get dumped into the creek where salmon spawn.

“We’re abandoned. We’re completely abandoned by the city,” said David Hobbs, who lives in the Thornton Creek area.

But multiple city departments have reported the City Council’s budget vote means their hands are tied.

“The council’s actions leave the city without any tools to address encampments that may pose health and safety risks,” stated the HSD.

“Seattle City Council eliminated funding for the Navigation team. This means that City-conducted outreach to people at unauthorized encampments, including shelter referrals and removals of unauthorized encampments that pose public health and safety risks, is suspended,” stated Seattle Public Utilities.

The City Council’s vote to suspend or eliminate the Navigation Team is beyond comprehension for some residents.

“Your only plan is to get rid of the only thing that works? If it’s not perfect, can’t we fix it? Does anyone have a plan?” Telford said. “This is not a shortage of compassion, empathy or understanding. I want to help. And clearly, we’re not doing enough to help,” he said.

City Council stated it’s working to boost funding for existing contracts to third-party groups that already do outreach work, and the mayor’s proposed budget for next year will shift cleanup work to Seattle Public Utilities.

Neighbors said the problem of growing encampments — and dangers for both those unsheltered and neighbors — cannot wait until 2021.