Volunteer group keeps helping homeless people, despite the city’s ask to stop

SEATTLE — A volunteer group called “We Heart Seattle” that cleans up trash from homeless camps and provides outreach is speaking out. They say after picking up thousands of pounds of garbage, city leaders have asked them to stop doing their work.

In defiance, the group was back out on Friday picking up garbage around the homeless camp on Shilshole Avenue in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.

City Councilmember Dan Strauss, who represents the area, said in a statement that because of existing outreach work happening in the area, “Ad-hoc outreach can cause confusion making it more difficult to move people inside.”

A city spokesperson said they couldn’t comment on the We Heart Seattle situation but said in general, “Staff who work in and around encampments are highly trained in safety procedures” in handling debris, needles, and de-escalation, and “this is not work that the City encourages volunteers to take on.”

But the ask from city leaders for We Heart Seattle to stop volunteering has angered some people in the community. In social media posts and comments, people are criticizing the city for not doing enough and accuse the city of now trying to stop others from helping.

Andrea Suarez, founder of We Heart Seattle, says she and other volunteers have picked up more than 320,000 pounds of trash over the past year.

“We always work very closely with the camp and get permission,” Suarez said. She said last week, she received a Zoom meeting invite from Strauss.

“I was overjoyed, hoping to finally get some city collaboration,” Suarez said. But instead, she says a group of about a dozen people asked her group to stop doing their work.

“I was very shocked. And puzzled how a group that large would come out and tell me to stand down,” Suarez said. “I’ve been told that isn’t even my trash to remove, that’s somebody’s property and it’s not my business to remove the trash and that’s just ridiculous,” she said.

Suarez says they’ve also helped place campers into housing and connect people with resources.

“It’s incredible citizens can do this work too. It’s just building relationships with people,” she said.

KIRO7 asked Strauss why they didn’t want We Heart Seattle to do this work. He sent me a statement saying in part:

“The city and our partners are focusing on the Ballard area right now, and to have additional uncoordinated outreach and activity can create barriers to successfully moving people inside. We cannot continue to let people suffer and die in our parks- - I want to see everyone currently living at the park brought inside as soon as possible and we are actively working to that end.”

Both Strauss and the City of Seattle also pointed to a rule that requires the city to store people’s personal belongings for 90 days.

Suarez says they aren’t taking anyone’s stuff, just garbage, and says they have no plans to stop their work.

“Action is a form of protest for a more beautiful and clean Seattle,” Suarez said.

The group’s plan to continue cleanup and outreach work is not breaking any laws.

Full statement from Councilmember Dan Strauss:

“I am working with community leaders, the Mayor’s office, our HOPE Team, and service providers to implement a coordinated plan to move people out of Ballard Commons Park and the surrounding area into shelter. Ad-hoc outreach can cause confusion making it more difficult to move people inside. The City is also engaging in trash pickup and mitigation in these areas and must follow the MDAR rules when removing trash from encampments. The city and our partners are focusing on the Ballard area right now, and to have additional uncoordinated outreach and activity can create barriers to successfully moving people inside. We cannot continue to let people suffer and die in our parks -- I want to see everyone currently living at the park brought inside as soon as possible and we are actively working to that end.”