We found Mac Perry at the Lake City Mini Park picking up food scraps and trash that had been spilled on the sidewalk between a couple of tents and two portable toilets.
“This is gross, but I do it because someone has too” says Perry. He says he’s not afraid to pick up trash with his bare hands at homeless camps on his walks. He’s seen the population of tents at the city park increase, despite signage that prevents camping and trespassing.
“You are not supposed to smoke cigarettes in the parks or anything” he says. “They’ve been telling people to move their tents but more people are coming here to put tents up”.
The ‘they’ he’s referring are police officers.
Since mid- March, the city’s main homeless outreach effort, the Navigation Team which consists of several Seattle Police Officers has focused more on public health outreach than getting people out of tents and into shelters.
But Chief Carmen Best says her officers on the team are under the direction of someone else.
“We have some officers that are assigned to the Navigation Team that’s under Human Services” says Best. “They make the call about where they are going, where to clean and do outreach”.
According to Will Lemke, spokesperson for Seattle’s Human Services Department, the team ‘would remove an encampment if it posed an extreme circumstance’. He says the block of public and private access to property would also be a reason to remove a camp under the current public health crisis.
But for the most part, the City has taken a position to let the camps exist. Camps have increased in size and number in Pioneer Square, along I-5 and I-90 in the city limits, in Ballard where there was a small Hepatitis A outbreak one month ago and in Lake City.
“This camp has been growing over the last three weeks, four weeks and its get bigger and bigger” say Jennifer, a Lake City resident. “And the mingling with each other, things that we are not allowed to do, told not do, these guys are doing the exact opposite”.
The City of Seattle’s Crime Dashboard does not break down the location of crimes in transitory encampments, but burglaries, a crime that is associated with homeless camps have reportedly went up 87 percent in the city’s West Precinct during the month of March.
Burglaries are typically non-violent misdemeanor crimes. Currently the King County Jail is not keeping people suspected of non-violent misdemeanors in jail to increase social distancing in the jail and officers tell KOMO News, they know that.
“We are very cognizant of the fact that we don’t want to overcrowd our jails because we are in a covid19 era” says Best. “But we feel very confident that if a person needs to be booked we will make contact with the jail and that will happen.”
In the meantime, there does not appear to be a strategy to deter people from pitching a tent.
“I think people should be able to set up a tent where ever they want” says Perry.
At least on public property, the City and the State are letting that happen.
“I’m scared that we are going to accept this as the new norm, that’s what scares me” says Jennifer.