KIRO NEWSRADIO

In Plain Sight: How controversial nonprofit We Heart Seattle uncovered human remains

Apr 1, 2024, 11:20 AM | Updated: Apr 3, 2024, 9:18 am

This is a KIRO Newsradio exclusive video series, In Plain Sight, from reporter Sam Campbell about the nonprofit organization We Heart Seattle. Above is the first installment, A Body in the Woods. Keep reading for the story.

In Plain Sight Part 2: Critics claim We Heart Seattle destroys homeless peoples’ property

In Plain Sight Part 3: Questions surround We Heart Seattle, King County policies

In a soggy greenspace tucked between Dexter and 4th Avenue in Seattle, a team of volunteers find footing on a muddy embankment, grabbing onto tree branches for support as they walk deeper into the small roadside wooded area toward the remnants of a small encampment.

They gather cushions, tents, books, needles, blankets and keepsakes.

This was the scene at the city’s parcel of land in late January when the team returned to finish cleaning up the camp. Their initial cleanup two weeks prior was interrupted by a grim discovery – the volunteers stumbled upon the decaying remains of a person, presumably, who lived in the camp.

More on the discovered human remains: Volunteer group finds human remains in Seattle park

“I was checking in on the camps that were still set up, and I happened to come across a fully decomposed body,” Kodi Pickett, a volunteer who found the human remains, said. “It was lying in a tent. It was all fully clothed, wrapped in a blanket when I pulled it out.

“It was a real shock to me. I’ve seen a lot of bodies in my time, but seeing one fully decomposed …” Pickett continued as he trailed off.

Volunteers called the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to report the death. Officers responded and the bones are now being examined. With the fluid nature of homeless camp populations, and no definitive head count on this camp from any official organization, questions remain on just how many people lived here, who knew this person and who knows what happened to them.

At the time of this publication, there’s no available identification yet from the King County Medical Examiner, leaving a mystery on how this person died and who they were.

Lack of certainty leads to more questions

The uncertainty has left some, like the volunteers, scratching their heads. They’ve seen the remains — forgotten, long enough to decompose down the bone — and they ask questions like, “How many more will be found like this person?”

Enter We Heart Seattle (WHS), whose volunteers were the ones to find the person’s decaying bones.

In the absence of concrete answers from the city and county, volunteers acted as amateur detectives at the site — piecing together what they can through the debris. Among their findings are glass bottles strung up on branches like ornaments, a veritable library of novels and enough needles to fill multiple biohazard containers.

The volunteers concluded, in their amateur assessment, this person was likely a voracious reader with an unbroken taste for décor and a crippling intravenous drug addiction.

“This is somebody who has a lot of trauma. I don’t believe they were one paycheck away from making their rent from getting fired from Boeing or wherever,” WHS Founder Andrea Suarez said. “Addiction gets the best of people. They’re in a cycle. There’s no way a person chooses this way and stays out here to languish and eventually die if drugs are not involved. And the evidence is clear.”

Image: SPD officers and We Heart Seattle volunteers search through an encampment where human remains were uncovered.

SPD officers and We Heart Seattle volunteers search through an encampment where human remains were uncovered. (Photo courtesy of We Heart Seattle)

Suarez founded WHS during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the nonprofit’s executive director, she leads a handful of staff and rotating teams of volunteers in an “action-based, boots-on-the-ground movement that organizes trash cleanups in our public spaces and offers resources to those in need,” the organization’s website states.

“We’ve been doing this for three years. This is our 330th trash pick,” Suarez said. “Over a million pounds of trash has been removed in green spaces and encampments in three years with over 11,000 hours of volunteer, boots-on-the-ground labor.”

More from Sam Campbell: SPD officer caught laughing at Kandula’s death mounts defense at closed-door hearing

While WHS found the remains during what the group calls a “trash pick,” it took place at a homeless encampment and it remains unclear if anyone was currently living in the camp at the time the bones were found. It has raised questions among volunteers as to why they were the ones – and not city crews – to find the remains. Among other Seattleites, the discovery raises concerns a nonprofit without proper training is entering homeless encampments – even though they are often located on public land, as this camp was.

Who is We Heart Seattle accountable to?

As a private organization operating on public land, some ask who WHS is accountable to. KIRO Newsradio has worked to find that answer.

WHS isn’t officially contracted with any city or government agency. The Office of Settle Mayor Bruce Harrell, King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) and Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) have all said they do not coordinate with Suarez’s organization.

Callie Craighead, a communications associate with Harrell’s office, sent the following response by email to KIRO Newsradio.

The City does not have any active contracts with We Heart Seattle. We would defer to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) if they had any contracts for outreach or other services.

Volunteer clean ups at parks can be authorized by Seattle Parks & Recreation (SPR), but at this time this organization is not a registered volunteer group with SPR’s volunteer unit.

We Heart Seattle hosted a volunteer event for the One Seattle Day of Service in 2023, but no direct funding from the City is provided for this event.

James Poling of WSDOT also confirmed to KIRO Newsradio they are not working with We Heart Seattle.

“WSDOT has not any direct coordination with We Heart Seattle,” Poling said in an email.

Finally, Anne Martens of the KCRHA stated in an email her organization does not have an official relationship with WHS.

“We Heart Seattle has a number of dedicated staff and volunteers, but they are not a contracted service provider,” Martens said.

Instead, the nonprofit relies solely on donations, which Suarez estimated is in the $700,000 range this fiscal year. In terms of relationships with local leaders, Suarez previously told “Seattle’s Morning News” she viewed her actions cleaning up camps as “disruptive” to the status quo.

“They’re like in an archeological dig site picking up trash from 5, 6, 10-plus years ago. It could be part illegal dumping, part accumulated trash by the people living there,” Suarez said as she described what the volunteers were doing at the site. “Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of used needles, cookers, tourniquets and other drug paraphernalia that King County hands out with the needle-exchange program. I do question what the term ‘exchange’ is in that failing program that is really just enabling people to die out here alone.”

But with five of nine Seattle City council members new on the job, Suarez said she’s experienced a change in her interactions with some of them, including some city council members actually joining their “cleanups.”

More on the “new” Seattle City Council: Sara Nelson named Seattle City Council president; 5 new members sworn in

“Our city attorney has been out here litter picking. Ann Davison, Sara Nelson, Rob Saka, Cathy Moore. Bob Kettle came out to an event. I feel very hopeful that we now have a council that supports private-funded collaborative efforts that are helping guide them on what working and what’s not and giving a voice to addicts.”

Unlike service providers contracted through the KCRHA, she’s said she thinks drug treatment for people suffering from addiction should come before housing.

“The current housing-first funding doesn’t give money to people who are trying to give people a hand up and a path out of addiction, so We Heart Seattle is using a lot of our donations to fund recovery-oriented housing,” Suarez said.

Refusing to commit to prioritizing housing first has historically left her out of broad homelessness outreach coordination in the county. It’s also earned her and We Heart Seattle a contested reputation as either a maverick or a renegade — depending on the person’s views. But it’s a reputation that Suarez has embraced.

“Now the motto is, ‘don’t talk to homeless about addiction or recovery and don’t go knocking on their door, they don’t knock on your door’ and I say, ‘well, isn’t that the exact definition of stigmatizing? To not acknowledge the person as a human being? That they too might want a clean house? They too might want a clean and sober pathway out?’ So for that, I say, ‘Let’s knock on those tent doors, go within 20 feet, do a welfare check.’ All hands on deck. Everyone can be an outreach worker.”

Suarez’s claim anyone can work in outreach has garnered widespread criticism among homelessness advocates in Seattle.

KIRO Newsradio examines those criticisms and more in the next part of the In Plain Sight series.

This is the first installment of a three-part series. Check back on MyNorthwest for updated stories. All three videos are currently up on the KIRO Newsradio YouTube channel.

You can read more of Sam Campbell’s stories here. Follow Sam Campbell on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

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In Plain Sight: How controversial nonprofit We Heart Seattle uncovered human remains