Big hearts: there is room for all citizen responses to the homeless crisis in Seattle

At the top of the northeast Queen Anne Greenbelt above Aurora Avenue, the MacLean Park Trail descends and turns away from Taylor Avenue. On a recent Sunday morning, about 50 volunteers came out to clean up this craggy Seattle oasis, where the asphalt ends and the blackberries give way to a wooded path on the hillside.

Armed with barbecue tongs, trash tongs, garden rakes, and their own gloved hands, they scooped up trash from half a dozen abandoned settlements and stuffed it into black trash bags, adding to the trash. hundreds who already lined the path like sentries. Andrea Suarez, wearing a flowered cap, gardening gloves and a black vest, filled me up.

She started We love Seattle last fall, inspired by volunteers who came to clean up after the downtown May protests and tired of standing while garbage piled up in city parks. Since then, her mission has expanded to help people she meets in camps who want help finding a job or housing, getting vaccinated or getting sober again. She’s not a social worker, but she’s passionate and has tapped into something potentially huge.

“I saw coyotes here, I saw rabbits,” she said of the greenbelt. She is interrupted by a pair of volunteers who have found a glass pipe and a bag of white crystals.

“OK,” she says unperturbed, and searches for a container. “Let’s get rid of the drugs. “

Hypodermic needles were among items cleaned up by We Heart Seattle volunteers at Northeast Queen Anne Greenbelt on Sunday, July 18, 2021. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Since last September, Suarez has been organizing regular garbage cleanups at Seattle parks like MacLean. According to her tally, she and her crews cleaned up over 150,000 pounds of trash. Along the way, she has helped dozens of homeless people find room inside and drew passionate criticism. On this sunny Sunday, it’s hard to see her as the “Vile and odious envelope of a human being” that someone recently called her on Twitter. Suarez prefers to think of herself as a volunteer. A citizen in general. She said to me, “I’m the girl next door.

Suarez’s critics say she prioritizes garbage over people. They say the volunteers in her group weren’t always respectful enough to those who live in the parks. Conservative media figures like Jason rantz and John Carlson gleefully presented it as a crusade against ineffective progressive government, which doesn’t help.

The online echo chamber has predictably pushed its supporters and detractors into separate corners. When they cross paths in camps, it sometimes gives rise to heated verbal exchanges. But the two critics I spoke to seemed sincere and reasonable over the phone.

“When I was a teenager, a lot of my friends were street children and homeless children,” Alycia Ramirez told me. “It has always been something that was personal to me.”

Ramirez is the co-founder of Project Solidarity, one of the many informal groups that try to support homeless city dwellers by offering them ‘mutual aid’. In separate interviews, she and Aidan Carroll, who is a member of the direct democracy group the Cascadia Co-operative Assembly, said they had tried to voice their concerns to Suarez, but she did not appear to listen. I wish the two factions would give each other a little grace and find common ground.

Suarez, whose day job is in sales for a logistics company, is definitely good at generating interest. She holds her phone in front of her, takes a video and screams as volunteers attack the trash cans.

“We could do that today,” she said, clearly impressed.

Volunteers include a handful of locals, a man who lives in a tent at the trailhead, volunteers from Ballard, Green Lake, Greenwood, West Seattle, and over half a dozen members of the Seattle Latino Hiking Club. . Suarez’s parents are from Oregon and she took them. They all turned out for different reasons but with a deep desire to do Something.

Paula Mueller, board member of the Queen Anne Community Council, helped publicize the cleanup. She said the neighbors hiked the trail a lot and wanted to make it usable again. Mary Cole grew up in the neighborhood. Her stepson’s older sister died in another camp in February 2019. Lisa Power is a small business owner who started a similar group called Tidy Uptown. Craig Thompson lives at the northern tip of Beacon Hill. For years he has been doing environmental restoration in the jungle, one of the city’s oldest settlements on the western slope of the hill.

We Heart Seattle volunteers walk past bags of trash they picked up, but mysteriously burned, in the Queen Anne Greenbelt of northeast Seattle, Sunday, July 18, 2021 (Ken Lambert / The Seattle) Times)

The Seattle Latino Hiking Club is committed to monthly cleanups and invites other hiking and outdoor groups to join its members. Suarez’s call for ordinary people to take responsibility for what goes on in their backyard resonates clearly. People are tired of wringing their hands and waiting for the city and other formal groups to work on infrastructure such as affordable housing and services. Like self-help groups, We Heart Seattle gives them a chance to help.

This is not the whole solution, but it is not mandatory. Ultimately, ending homelessness will be about connecting with people. You might as well start in your own backyard.

This is not the whole solution, but it is not mandatory. Ultimately, ending homelessness will be about connecting with people. There is no one right way to do it. But if small, engaged groups take up the challenge – listen, learn from each other, and support each other instead of pointing fingers – we might actually get there.

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