Bullying the Unhoused and Calling It Compassion
A Survivor’s Story of “We Heart Seattle”
by North Seattle Neighbors
The escalating crises of pandemic, poverty, and evictions in Seattle and elsewhere have given rise to a large number of mutual aid groups, including North Seattle Neighbors, who have been volunteering to bring supplies and build relationships with unhoused neighbors forced to live on sidewalks and in parks. At the same time, some other groups have responded with what they might perceive to be compassion when they are actually prioritizing privileged park access over peoples’ lives and well-being.
One group in Seattle, called We Heart Seattle, gathers volunteers to do what they refer to as park cleanups. However, their supposed cleanups have often involved non-consensual confiscation or destruction of tents and other possessions. They have insisted that they always get consent, but they also admit that the consent has sometimes been only the word of someone in a nearby tent.
The executive director of We Heart Seattle, Andrea Suarez, has a reputation for taking credit for other people’s work and for claiming partnerships or endorsements that do not exist. In one documented case, she attempted to gain private information by pretending to be a case manager. She first tried to insist that she had never done so, but after being confronted with confirmation from the agency where she tried to assume the false identity, Ms. Suarez has doubled down and posted that she should be considered a case manager, even though she has neither training nor licensing.
Andrea Suarez has stated online that: “I have no record of any unhoused person claiming our volunteers ever throwing away property at Denny or anywhere without consent, not once.” [sic] She is able to make this claim because unhoused people living in tents are in vulnerable circumstances, can be fearful for their safety and privacy, and often hesitate to make their situation public, even when they have been abused.
However, We Heart Seattle recently brought their operation to some people that were willing to speak out.
On Saturday May 8, Andrea Suarez and a group of We Heart Seattle volunteers came uninvited to a park in North Seattle. In a message online, Ms. Suarez represented the events this way:
“I met with M[____] and B[____] at [name of park] yesterday . . . They gave us consent to take a lot of their own surrounding trash and a collapsed tent. They share[d] their gator-aids with us and [we] gave them some cash in return for any other specific supplies they needed.”
Our local team, North Seattle Neighbors, has been bringing food and supplies to this park regularly since 2020. Long before May 8, we had gotten to know the park residents here referred to as M and B as well as other residents who were present on that day. Their story directly contradicts the description of the event that Andrea Suarez posted. M came to us later on May 8 and complained of what had happened. The next day, Sunday May 9, M asked us to interview her. M explicitly asked us to write and make public the story of what happened. M’s hope is that more people can understand how We Heart Seattle treats unhoused residents. We spoke to other residents of the park as well.
We are protecting the names and locations of our friends at the park.
What M told us was this:
“We were gone from our tent like 45 minutes. We went to meet B’s mom who was bringing a rug, some gatorade and stuff for us. She’s great, she tries to help us out, brings us things, fills our propane tank. We had been cleaning out our tent so we could put the rug down when we got it, so our stuff was outside all around the tent. We went right over there to meet her, to that gate just over the little rise.
When we came back from meeting B’s mom, there were all these people swarming our tent. 10 to 15 people. We didn’t know who they were. We started running toward them, our hands were full, some of the gatorade bottles dropped on the grass. We put the rest down outside our tent. We didn’t know what to do. They were picking our stuff up and throwing it away.
B doesn’t like to be confrontational. He’s really good at avoiding it. B was telling them ‘That’s not garbage. You’re taking stuff from our storage tent. It’s nice you want to help with our garbage but we can tell you what’s garbage if you want to know.’
We had a protective weather shield that pumps up with air. It wasn’t a mess, it was brand new. They took it and threw it away. It cost $186. She just threw it away.
They kinda stopped when we came back. But they said ‘What about this tent behind you, it’s all waterlogged.’ We said ‘No it’s not, don’t throw that away.’
Andrea was really aggressive. She acted like she knew stuff when she didn’t. She didn’t make me feel like a human at all. She was like a corrections officer. She was like a cop.
B is not usually shocked by people’s behavior but even he was shocked by her. I was angry and humiliated. I mean, I don’t usually come out of my tent very much. Even when people I know come around, like you guys, I usually stay inside to talk with you. But all these people were standing around staring at us. We didn’t know what to do.
I was trying to tell Andrea my situation. B and I are both in active addiction. I want longterm treatment. I have a 16 year old daughter and I want her to know that I really want to do it.
I was trying to understand why Andrea was acting the way she was. Snooty, stuck up, bullying. I told her ‘I don’t need your help. I’m working with other people who come here.’ A white guy with gray hair, his name was Kevin, said ‘Oh yeah, I’ve worked with them for years, they make trouble.’
And then Andrea says ‘Can I get some of those gatorades for my volunteers?’ We were scared to confront her, so I was like ‘. . . sure.’ She took four gatorades, and then she wanted another one. Finally I spoke up and said ‘You know, we really need those for ourselves.’
Her volunteers were looking at her like No, like they knew in their hearts she shouldn’t be taking things.
B was still trying to avoid a confrontation, so he said ‘It’s okay, they can have some’, and I said ‘But we need them’, and it caused us to start arguing. Finally I said ‘Okay screw it, I’ll just write a grievance report on her to her workplace.’ I said it loud enough that she heard it.
So they left. I hoped they were gone. 20 or 30 minutes later, Andrea came back.
‘Here’s 20 dollars for the gatorade.’ And she took another jar.
I looked at the money and laughed. I told her ‘Any person in active addiction, if you have cash, you spend it on drugs. You won’t spend cash on gatorade.’ I’ve been in this 9 years. I want to get help, I want to get treatment. Yeah, I took the money, and I dropped it on the ground. She went away. B came back and picked it up and said ‘Are you fucking serious?’
The way she went about things. She’s not here for the right reasons.”
(The person referred to as Kevin is not someone we know and he has not worked with us. In the comment about a grievance report, M was assuming that Andrea Suarez was employed by someone to do this work and that M could complain to that employer.)
Another person living in the camp, W, was inside a tent nearby on May 8. We spoke with W on Monday May 10, and W told us:
“I was inside my tent with the door cracked open just a little. Suddenly there were all these voices, so many voices. I heard somebody say they had permission to tear down the camp. Somebody yells about a sharps container. I thought it was a sweep. They were going to take their time and clean us all out.
I just stayed inside. I was so scared I was shaking. I don’t have hardly anything, I’m just trying to hang on to what I’ve got till I can get a job. My biggest fear is that someone is going to take all my stuff away before I can deal with it.”
These stories from M and W demonstrate several things:
• We Heart Seattle had not gotten consent from the residents of the tent, who were surprised and disturbed.
• We Heart Seattle threw away possessions without consent.
• We Heart Seattle did not listen to concerns by residents of the tent, but kept trying to insist on confiscating and throwing away possessions.
• We Heart Seattle took new supplies from residents, only later coming back with a problematic offer of money.
• We Heart Seattle showed no awareness of complex personal circumstances of unhoused people.
• We Heart Seattle is a frightening presence to unhoused people in vulnerable circumstances.
It is not always easy for people in vulnerable circumstances to assert themselves against people with more privilege and power. Only because of our previous building of relationship and trust were we able to capture these stories from residents that were frightened and harmed by Andrea Suarez and We Heart Seattle. We have good reason to believe there are many others with similar experiences that have not been able to bring them forward.