Seattle residents love their urban forest parks, but lately, homeless camps have been springing up within the forested confines of the parks. Ask Dean Drugge, who went to water some plants that he and other volunteers planted last winter and found a muddy 10-by-12-foot clearing where 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 among the towering maples.
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.
Among the city’s responses to those concerns are recently installed gates at roadway entrances into Woodland Park, to deter overnight RV camping.
“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. They’re not intended to be places for people to set up a home.”