When Dean Drugge went to water an area along the Burke-Gilman Trail that he and other volunteers planted last winter, he came across a muddy 10-by-12-foot clearing. Someone had chopped down the willow and dogwood trees and uprooted sword ferns and salmonberries to make way for a campsite.
Drugge, a volunteer forest steward, confiscated the pitchfork, hatchet and handsaw left behind by the camper to prevent further destruction. “It’s discouraging,” he said.
Nearly three years since the city declared a “state of emergency” over homelessness, the crisis continues to grow, and many homeless people seek refuge in Seattle’s beloved urban forests.
Forest stewards across the city grapple with competing values of environmental conservation and compassion for the homeless as they see compacted soil, trampled plants, human waste and leftover needles in the interstices of towering maples. This has prompted the question of whom the parks should serve.
There were 823 complaints about homelessness in the city’s more than 485 parks and natural areas — which total 6,414 acres — last year, and near that number as of July. The city said improved data collection of complaints about homeless camps may account for part of the dramatic uptick.
Among the city’s responses to those concerns are recently installed gates at roadway entrances into Woodland Park, to deter overnight RV camping, according to Rachel Schulkin, spokeswoman for Seattle Parks and Recreation.
Environmental groups and forest stewards have found it difficult to balance their priorities with the needs of those looking for a place to lay their heads at night.
“It puts us in a position where we set up nature conservation and homeless advocacy as opposing causes. Many people support both,” John Brosnan, executive director of Seattle Audubon, said of camping in parks.
“We have to protect our urban forests from these high-impact uses so that they will remain healthy for residents today and in the future,” Brosnan said. “They’re not intended to be places for people to set up a home.”
Drugge said he has seen more homeless encampments — some outfitted with propane tanks and solar panels — around Matthews Beach Park and Magnuson Park in recent years. He reports them, but, “Nothing happens for a long time.”
Although some forest stewards abandon sites that attract campers, Drugge said he doesn’t want to give up. “Nature will come back eventually.”
Not far from Columbia City Station is the main entrance to Cheasty Greenspace’s 50 acres. Over the past decade, forest stewards have transformed the southern 10 acres of Cheasty from a hotbed of illicit activity into well-traveled forest with a new trail system.
“There used to be mattresses seeded in the blackberry briar patches for prostitution rings 11 years ago,” said Susan Zeman, a forest steward, standing by the benches that have gone in where a former encampment compacted the soil. “We’ve converted an anti-social no-go place into a place where people bring their grandkids.”
Stewards and neighbors who have volunteered countless weekends pulling ivy and digging up blackberry bushes — two invasive species that previously covered the green spaces — sometimes find their efforts undone by encampments.
Forest stewards have not encountered tents in the southern part, but they regularly have campers in the larger northern parcel to the north, where stained toilet paper is strewn across shrubs.
Zeman said the park, surrounded by working-class neighborhoods, serves an important role in providing access to nature — especially for “people who can’t load their kids in the SUV and drive to Mount Si.”
“When there’s encampments, we’ve ceded the space,” Zeman said. “It’s a public forest that we want to remain public, but we also want to respect people’s desire to live in peace and dignity.”
Zeman, who has served homeless patients in her capacity as a cardiac nurse, said she sympathizes with those seeking quiet and stability in the woods, but that these people deserve better.
“If they go deeper into the forest and we don’t see them, our sense of urgency disappears.”