‘Now an expectation’: Volunteer group finds human remains in Seattle park

Jan 25, 2024, 5:16 PM

Members of the nonprofit organization We Heart Seattle found human remains in a public area within a wooded area in Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne neighborhood earlier this month.

The remains were found on Jan. 8 beneath the Aurora Bridge on an embankment on the north side of Dexter Avenue, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) announced this week. This was the second body found by the organization.

“Dexter Ave is our latest ‘archeological sight’ and we will clean up the rest of the skeletal remains and camp this Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m.,” Andrea Suarez, the founder and executive director of We Heart Seattle, told MyNorthwest. “We expect to find a missing skull under the collapsed camp.”

More from We Heart Seattle: Volunteer group lambasts King County Regional Homeless Authority’s ballooning budget

What remained in the defunct encampment

Suarez described the area as an abandoned green space with artifacts of prior living that was years if not a decade or more old. Trees had fallen down over the years had been cut through to make space for makeshift forts and camps. We Heart Seattle staff even spotted trash with expiration dates dating back to 2018.

“Garbage several feet deep, thousands of needles, bottles of all kinds filled with urine, buckets and other makeshift toilets with human waste collected and eroded into the slope,” Suarez said when describing the former encampment.

No homeless person was living in the encampment during the time of We Heart Seattle’s cleanup.

“It is possible, now that it’s clean, that new campers would return,” Suarez said. “However, through community stewardship, we hope to activate it as an urban hiking trail and play space for dogs and children.”

We Heart Seattle is a nonprofit that prepares sites for trash and debris removal throughout the city, recruiting volunteers for trash cleanups. Many of the sites are defunct, abandoned or cleared-out encampments within public spaces. Between Oct. 2020 and Oct. 2023, the organization said it collected over a million pounds of garbage across approximately 300 cleanups. It added that more than 10,000 volunteer hours were logged to achieve this.

The nonprofit works alongside the city’s “Find it, Fix it” app to coordinate trash pickup. “Find It, Fix It” is a smartphone app offering mobile users one more way to report selected issues to the City of Seattle.

“We’ve found 12 (since 2020) by me or volunteers in Honey Buckets at Gilman Playfield, RVs in (Seattle neighborhoods) SoDo and Interbay, vans in SoDo, tents near stadiums in Beacon Hill, under stairs in Belltown, Queen Anne and Kinnear Park,” Suarez added. “It’s now an expectation when we scout a clean-up area before we bring volunteers in.”

Despite it being an expectation, Suarez noted this was the first time she or anyone within the organization found bones.

“This was the first body totally decomposed. (It had) been there for years, if not a decade,” Suarez said. “Several others had been passed away for weeks and in plain sight.”

We Heart Seattle staff immediately contacted SPD once they discovered the remains, who forwarded the case to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office for further investigation. The identity of the remains and the cause of death are still under investigation, as SPD confirmed to MyNorthwest.

Fears about Seattle’s public spaces confirmed

But this discovery only confirmed fears about the safety of public parks and spaces being unsafe within Seattle.

“Since We Heart Seattle cleaned and preserved more than 31 parks before Harrell and, through stewardship, those parks are safe,” Suarez said. “Kinnear Park is not safe at all. Urban hiking trails and ‘protected wetlands and trails,’ formally dirk bike trails or places to play, are still riddled with needles.”

More on homelessness in Seattle: Despite past costs, Inslee seeks $100M to prevent homelessness

Seattle Parks and Recreation has struggled keeping the public spaces safe for all residents. On Dec. 27, the department, with support from the SPD, removed a makeshift garden dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement located in Cal Anderson Park. Parks and Recreation cited the garden became an unsafe place for all park users, noting recent incidents of vandalism of Cal Anderson public bathrooms, public drug use, unauthorized camping and a significant rodent problem, along with other issues.

“The city’s Unified Care Team also removed tent encampments that were located near the garden area and immediately outside the park along E Olive St. as part of ongoing efforts to keep public spaces clean, open and accessible to all,” Seattle Parks and Recreation wrote. “This is the 76th time the Unified Care Team has resolved encampments at Cal Anderson in 2023, which is one of the most frequently addressed areas in the city for repopulated encampments.”

But Suarez doesn’t want to hear people blame the government anymore.

“The voters have blood on their watch,” Suarez said. “Don’t blame the government. Blame a lack of civic engagement and voter education which is the third arm of We Heart Seattle.”

Suarez said the organization has adopted a new mantra: Voting is your superpower. In Nov. 2023’s general election, just slightly more than 500,000 ballots were returned out of nearly 1.4 million registered voters, or 37.9% — the lowest recorded since reliable voter registration counts began in 1936.

More on election turnout: 2023 King County election had lowest voter turnout in nearly 90 years

Frank Sumrall is a content editor at MyNorthwest. You can read his stories here and you can email him here.

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‘Now an expectation’: Volunteer group finds human remains in Seattle park