Parks Before People
A blog post fails to defend We Heart Seattle
by North Seattle Neighbors
We Heart Seattle (WHS) is a volunteer litter-pickup group whose members sometimes refer to themselves as “service providers” without any reference to training, licensing or accountability. WHS and their founder Andrea Suarez have been credibly accused of several falsehoods and abuses. Members of the group have posted questions online wondering why other volunteers and groups object to their behavior and their tactics, or wondering why many unhoused people have banned them or are afraid of them.
A recent blog post titled Sabotage, Seattle Style, written by Craig Thompson, tries to defend WHS and Andrea Suarez. However, the post inadvertently demonstrates some of the unfortunate habits that WHS has used to avoid accountability for the group’s ongoing harmful actions. The post was originally in a blog on the Seattle P.I. but was removed from that site, probably for its numerous counterfactual claims and personal slurs. The piece is now on The Medium in a slightly revised form.
In general, we at North Seattle Neighbors, along with other mutual aid groups, have taken issue with WHS and Andrea Suarez for prioritizing parks over people. Their priority of “saving the parks” can translate to a priority of moving unhoused people out of sight rather than into stability. They often overlook the many reasons why unhoused people might choose the privacy and self-determination of living in open spaces instead of choosing the crowded mats on floors of congregate shelters or the various forms of human warehousing that are often recommended or forced on them. The misplaced priorities of WHS have led them to more serious wrongdoings.
The most common complaint against WHS is that they use little or no evidence to designate a tent as “abandoned” or to designate objects as “trash”, when that tent or those objects might be the belongings of someone who happens to be away from home. By confiscating, removing or destroying those belongings, WHS repeatedly causes material loss and trauma to people who are already suffering ongoing hardship, who lack privacy and the security of a locked door.
Over time, we have gathered several testimonies from unhoused people who have been threatened, harmed, or had their possessions stolen by WHS volunteers. We have published some of those testimonies online as Bullying the Unhoused and Andrea Suarez, Dog Thief. We know these unhoused people personally, and their first-hand testimonies detail how Andrea Suarez and members of WHS confiscated and destroyed personal possessions without consent. WHS often misidentifies tents and possessions as abandoned by asking random neighbors to speak on behalf of absent residents whom those neighbors might not know. Lack of ongoing relationships with people living in these parks, coupled with arrogant assumptions that anything that looks messy must be trash, have caused WHS members to steal and destroy possessions all over Seattle.
Bullying the Unhoused records the experience of the owners of one such tent. The owners returned from an errand and were shocked to find a large group of people swarming their tent. “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 . . . When we came back from meeting B’s mom, there were all these people swarming our tent . . . . 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.”
The fact that Andrea Suarez later posted a description of this as a friendly interaction — even suggesting that the residents gave consent which they clearly did not — leads to the next issue.
Earlier this year, Andrea Suarez attempted to impersonate a case manager at Youthcare Orion Center for runaway and homeless youth. Mr. Thompson in his blog post and elsewhere has first denied and then minimized this incident. In a Facebook message in April, he denied it, stating that Andrea Suarez “has not impersonated a case worker”. In his blog post from July, he changes his story and admits that the incident did happen, but says that it was nothing but “a poor choice of words.” He repeatedly insists Andrea Suarez and WHS volunteers “made mistakes, admitted to them, and moved on.” The events do not confirm this statement.
In March, an employee of Youthcare Orion Center posted this:
“Andrea Suarez of We Heart Seattle showed up at my job (Youthcare Orion Center) yesterday and pretended to be one of our client’s case manager in an effort to enter the center and gain information about our clients. My co-worker (a case manager) had to explain to her what HIPAA and ROIs were [healthcare information privacy and rules of information] and obviously denied her access into our center and denied her any information regarding our clients. Just a heads up for any other folks that work at shelters or engagement centers.”
Far from taking accountability and admitting harm, Andrea Suarez tried repeatedly to deny the incident, both online and in person, as when one of our members was surprised to come upon her in a park: “As soon as I realized it was Andrea Suarez, I asked her if she had impersonated a case manager. She said no, she had not. I pointed out that we know people at the Orion Center, and she reconsidered, then grudgingly said ‘Okay, that one time.’”
She has since doubled down on her actions, posting publicly on Facebook: “So what if I call myself a case worker?” This refusal to take any responsibility for her actions is something we have found characteristic of the group as a whole.
WHS has also boasted of having found housing for upwards of 40 unhoused people, a claim that is repeated in Mr. Thompson’s article. On examination, many of these cases involve helping people into congregate shelters or into warehousing situations — including one in Oregon — rather than long-term stable housing. Many people that move into such places end up on the street again before long. This shows once more that the misguided priority of WHS is not to find actual solutions to the suffering of the unhoused, but to remove them from view, even for a short time. Furthermore, acceptance into a shelter often must be completed by a licensed case manager or housing system navigator, so in many cases WHS is taking credit for the work of others.
Mr. Thompson in his blog post adds further falsehoods and unsupported assertions. He uses the label “protesters” for other mutual aid volunteers who object to the harmful activities of WHS volunteers. He then attempts to discredit those “protesters” with regressive and classist stereotypes about anarchists and people who use four-letter words. He asserts without any evidence that these “protesters” undid some bags of trash which WHS filled and left at a local park. It happens that our group North Seattle Neighbors visits the park in question regularly, and any one of us can testify that we did not undo any trash bags. We might guess that the trash bags could have been undone by a returning resident looking for possessions that were taken and trash-bagged without consent; but we don’t know who did it. The WHS habit of leaving bags for someone else to dispose of invites interference by a wide range of people.
The author adds a more libelous assertion that “protesters” set fire to trash bags at another park. He does not attempt to show any evidence for this claim.
The habit of asserting falsehoods and of exaggerating to the point of falsehood has come to permeate WHS interactions and those of Mr. Thompson himself. In his blog post, he chooses to quote in full a Facebook message that one of our members sent to WHS in response to their announcement that they would bring their operation to a park where we regularly visit. We are happy to quote again here the full message from our volunteer:
“You are not welcome at [the park where we regularly visit] or surrounding areas on Thursday. I’m part of a strong community of neighbors and friends of people living at [the park] and we are prepared to come in sufficient numbers to cover the area and stand between you and any targets of your harm. If you try to bring your harm into [the park], you will only spend all day being blocked by our teams. If you choose to assault any of us, we will document and you will face the consequences. We are not interested in debating or negotiating: you have repeatedly demonstrated your refusal to listen or reconsider. You have lied repeatedly and even impersonated a case worker, so we have no reason to trust your word or your judgement. Your pattern of dishonesty and harmful actions forces us to protect ourselves and others from your damage.”
As part of his effort to portray mutual aid activists as dangerous, Mr. Thompson insists that “what [the writer] says is emotionally charged with a veiled threat.” We asked the writer of the message about this, and he told us:
“There was no threat and nothing to veil. We promised to stand between WHS and people we know in the park, and that’s what we did. We offered no violence, nor did we plan any. Craig sent me a reply at the time, twice referring to what I wrote as a threat. I chose not to respond because his use of that term indicated that Craig could not even respond on behalf of WHS without adding a little falsehood of his own.”
Impersonating a case manager and attempting later to justify it demonstrate the WHS habits of denying, deflecting and minimizing their harm actions. These actions also demonstrate the naive and arrogant disregard that Andrea Suarez and WHS have for the training, licensing and experience that are required to be case managers or service providers.
The attempted impersonation was not an isolated incident. WHS has formally described themselves by saying “We . . . consider ourselves qualified to do outreach work”. They seem to think of themselves as self-trained, self-licensed, and therefore not accountable to anyone.
REFUSAL TO LISTEN TO THE UNHOUSED
Mr. Thompson refuses to address or even mention the testimonies that we have gathered from unhoused friends here and here which refute many of the claims he makes about WHS. He mentions one local mutual aid organizer who has documented many of the problems with WHS. However, he does not address that organizer’s many concerns, but only cherry-picks a minor point and then slurs the organizer by associating them with regressive stereotypes about the uprising for Black lives. His refusal to engage with counter-evidence is consistent with the ongoing refusal of Andrea Suarez and WHS volunteers to listen to or accept criticisms, disagreement or dissent from the unhoused people they purport to be helping.
In his efforts to discount any evidence of dissent from the unhoused, Mr. Thompson resorts to a longstanding reactionary trope by insisting that any unhoused person who complains about WHS must be an Outside Agitator in Disguise. Specifically, he tries to bolster his ongoing case against local journalist Erica Barnett by making the repeated and unsupported assertion that mutual aid “protesters” are disguising themselves as unhoused residents of camps, with the apparent purpose of giving Erica Barnett wrong information:
“. . . the people Erica interacts with may not be the people who came to live in camps but circulate among them as activists. She doesn’t offer proof she actually spoke with a resident . . .”
“. . . she may have been interviewing activists who have embedded themselves in some camps.”
This preposterous and unfounded fantasy is reminiscent of those who insisted that the Civil Rights Movement was a Communist plot or those who believe that the January 6 assault on the Capitol Building was actually perpetrated by left-wing activists and Nancy Pelosi. This accusation reveals the desperation of WHS members to avoid listening to the widespread negative feedback about what they do.
These are some of the patterns which we have found and tried to resist. Mr. Thompson’s blog post recycles other reactionary tropes, and the original version ended with a reprehensible use of his own family history to slur one of his targets, which to his credit he removed when challenged. But even without those unfortunate additions, the blog post participates in the WHS patterns of falsehood, misrepresentation, and refusal to engage with counter-testimony. These unfortunate and harmful behaviors grow out of basic attitudes that were well articulated by a community letter addressed to Seattle City Council:
“WHS’s work starts from the desire of housed people not to have to see the visible effects of homelessness. It focuses on trash rather than people because it centers the housed volunteers and their need to see themselves as helpful. It is not rooted in connections to any particular groups. WHS is hitting up so many camps around the city that they cannot actually get to know the people who live there. And because of that starting point, it leads to real, material harm. When you don’t know a camp and its people well enough, you cannot possibly know what is actually trash and what is not. If you don’t talk to people and put them first, you don’t know if you’re throwing away something that’s been abandoned or something that is very much needed. And we have seen repeatedly in practice that WHS is taking things that are needed.”
This community letter was an attempt to gather and document the growing list of abuses by WHS and is well worth reading in full.
We Heart Seattle and Andrea Suarez continue to avoid accountability for their harmful actions because they rely on the vulnerability and silencing of unhoused people. They contribute to that silencing by making some unhoused people sign release forms which allow WHS to throw away belongings and to select and exploit some unhoused people’s voices for the self-promotion of WHS. They have refused to understand how much fear they are causing and how much damage they are doing. We are continuing to talk to unhoused people whom we have come to know personally and to gather their stories in hopes of bringing some kind of accountability to this dishonest and damaging group.