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

Apr 3, 2024, 7:11 AM | Updated: 2:52 pm

In Part Two, KIRO Newsradio heard from critics of We Heart Seattle. Now, we examine an official criminal case against the nonprofit’s former board president. We hear from a homeless man who says We Heart Seattle put his life back on track. We examine the parcel of land where volunteers found the person’s remains and we look at the lingering uncertainty surrounding those in Seattle living outside on public land.

In Plain Sight Part 1: How controversial nonprofit We Heart Seattle uncovered human remains

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

While Andrea Suarez and her nonprofit We Heart Seattle (WHS) defend themselves from accusations of theft and impropriety, a man who formerly served as their board president defends against 19 criminal counts in Oregon.

Kevin Dahlgren, who has created a social media following centered around documenting the living conditions of homeless people, is now facing charges for allegedly stealing the identities of homeless people near Portland, Oregon.

Court documents indicate he was working as a homeless services specialist for the City of Gresham, Oregon, at the time.

More on Kevin Dahlgren: Former president of PNW homeless outreach group charged with identity theft

Dahlgren is also listed in WHS’ tax documents as having been paid nearly $30,000 for “consulting” fees in 2022. He was paid around $5,300 the year before, according to 2021 filings. Suarez said he had limited involvement with her organization.

“He has 20-plus years in the field. But there’s not any reason to believe that he took or stole or committed any crime while you know, on the clock, so to speak with We Heart Seattle here in Seattle,” Suarez said. “And we’re heartbroken for anybody harmed and wish him the best path out that’s fair and equitable for all.”

In comments sent after KIRO Newsradio’s interview with her, Suarez addressed Dahlgren’s case.

“We paid him professional services because of the two decades of clinical experience he had, and helping us professionalize our organization in terms of the outreach piece as he is a drug and alcohol counselor,” Suarez wrote. “Whatever hot water he is in with the City of Gresham has absolutely nothing to do with us and are blind-sided by the news.”

DJ Ziegler: We Heart Seattle put me ‘back on track’

While criticism of WHS and its tactics colors much of the conversation surrounding the group online, the group closest to Suarez includes avid supporters of her character.

DJ Ziegler used to be homeless. It’s how he met Suarez and the nonprofit. Now, he volunteers to help pick up debris at their visits to homeless camps.

“I know that Andrea accepted me as I am at that time, and she didn’t put a bunch of stipulations on me. She didn’t have a bunch of expectations,” Ziegler said. “She just gave me that taste of that work ethic that I so much craved.”

He said she offered him a “stipend” to work with her team moving his things, but he couldn’t recall the value of it when asked. After working with Suarez and WHS, Ziegler later checked himself in with authorities on an outstanding warrant before going to detox for meth addiction.

Ziegler says without Suarez and WHS, he doesn’t know if he’d have done the same.

“The nice thing is the (trash) picks are only two or three or four hours. So it’s just a taste of enough to get you on track,” Ziegler said. “And then, that two hours turns into four hours turns into six hours that I’m able to actually work or function. So in the beginning, it was two hours or three hours every Saturday. And that was just enough to be able to start a process and get me back on track.”

Suarez told KIRO Newsradio her nonprofit paid $6,000 each to Ziegler and fellow volunteer Kodi Pickett for recovery-oriented housing after a “30-day inpatient” stay.

City relationship with We Heart Seattle appears to shift

WHS does not embrace the Housing First model of homelessness outreach that has characterized policy in King County, and it has led to criticisms, like those In Plain Sight covered in Part 2 of the series. The same difference in opinions over policy has led to We Heart Seattle being kept at arm’s length, away from close coordination with the City of Seattle and the county.

Suarez contended she and others in her organization are forgoing the established norm, going against the grain for a good cause — one of few entities in the so-called homelessness-industrial complex that she believes are carrying out meaningful action — without the burden of dogma.

She has cast doubt on the efficacy of agencies, local governments and organizations, like the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and the City of Seattle, which formerly homeless people tell KIRO Newsradio were helpful to them.

But the relationship between the nonprofit and the city appears to be changing, with local leaders embracing the once-ostracized group. While previous city leaders kept the organization at arm’s length, Suarez told KIRO Newsradio several newly elected city councilmembers and the city attorney have all attended WHS’ “litter picking” events.

“Our city attorney has been out here litter picking, Ann Davison,” Suarez said. “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.”

In a committee meeting March 27, Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) Chief of Staff Christopher Williams told the council “we love” Suarez’s nonprofit.

“They do great work,” he said. “We have tried to maintain an open communicative relationship with them. When they are doing cleans, we will frequently take dump runs of debris to the dump. We try to facilitate their work as much as we can within the standards of our UCT team requirements for how we work with encampments and remove debris.”

“They’re a force to be reckoned with, and we appreciate everything they do across the system. We have a good partnership with Andrea,” he said.

The remarks came about several weeks after a spokesperson with Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office told KIRO Newsradio that the city has “no active contracts” with WHS. The mayor’s office indicated at the time that WHS was also not a registered volunteer group with SPR.

For now, it remains unclear if SPR’s recent comments, or the councilmembers purported participation with WHS, represent any upcoming shift in city policies.

KIRO Newsradio has reached out to Councilmembers Moore, Saka, Kettle and Council President Nelson for an interview.

An uncertain future

Suarez and WHS continue their work cleaning public parks, and critics of the nonprofit call WHS’ approach reckless, saying the nonprofit’s approach only worsens trust-building with homeless communities in the long term.

The most outspoken critics point to WHS’ lack of affiliation with a governmental body as a problem: They say that without it, any attempt for accountability in any of the nonprofit’s alleged misdeeds will go unheard.

While that argument continues, heated discord itself remains one of many factors strangling conversations around homelessness in Seattle — with local, county and state officials sometimes debating who has jurisdictional authority over a piece of land before anyone is offered housing or swept from the area. Housing conditions and how much funding — along with where it goes — remain a sticking point, too.

Image: Andrea Suarez, founder of We Heart Seattle, holds a bottle with a "Don't be hobo-phobic" sticker during a homeless encampment cleanup in January 2024.

Andrea Suarez, founder of We Heart Seattle, holds a canister with a “Don’t be hobo-phobic” sticker during a homeless encampment cleanup in January 2024. (Image captured by Sam Campbell, KIRO Newsradio)

In the City of Burien, council members debated for several months what to do with a $1 million offer from King County to help with homelessness. They debated until the funding’s deadline almost expired, the money along with it. Burien ultimately agreed to accept the money, but at the time of publication, that money is locked in ongoing debates over where the city will use it to build a tiny home village.

Meanwhile, people have died outside.

Data from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office shows 421 people died while homeless in 2023 – with the cause for 74% listed as accidental drug overdose or poisoning.

Image: Data from the King County Medical Examiner's Office shows 421 people died while homeless in 2023.

Data from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office shows 421 people died while homeless in 2023 (Graphic provided by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office)

And it has gotten worse. In 2022, the medical examiner recorded 309 deaths of people who were homeless. In 2021, 188 deaths, when numbers show drug and poison accounted for just 43 percent.

Data from the King County Medical Examiner's Office shows 188 people died while homeless in 2021. (Graphic provided by the King County Medical Examiner's Office)

Data from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office shows 188 people died while homeless in 2021. (Graphic provided by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office)

In an interview after human remains were found on the greenspace along Dexter Avenue, William Hughes, who lived under the Ship Canal Bridge for two years, said he has seen too much death. But he endures, looking for a way out — as do thousands of people around King County.

Hughes, who is now living in a tiny home, said he has searched for those he can trust to help him — out of the trenches of homelessness and the ideological crossfire surrounding it. But he admits, the arguments surrounding homelessness, including the unethical behavior he accuses of WHS, tires him.

When asked if he tried to turn the other cheek, Hughes sighed and offered a pointed response.

“They’re getting thin, bro. But I kind of have to — I have to be lenient and I have to understand everybody’s at a different (point of view),” he said.

Why did Seattle crews not find a decomposing corpse?

Despite the accusations and doubt cast on WHS’ ethics, the fact remains its volunteers were the ones to find the person’s remains near the greenspace at Dexter Avenue North and 4th Avenue North.

It’s city land, according to the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

“Both our records and King County Parcels website have that listed as the City of Seattle right of way,” a spokesperson told KIRO Newsradio in an email.

Yet city crews hadn’t found the person’s corpse — long enough for it to decompose down to the bone. Why?

The city’s parks department indicated their crews are not allowed on “steep slopes.”

In an email sent after recording the video series, SPR responded to a KIRO Newsradio inquiry about the greenspace along Dexter Avenue.

“SPR has a practice of not allowing workers to work on steep slopes, which came from discussions with the labor unions that represent the staff who do this work. We typically utilize contractors to work on steep slopes. The majority of the space you have pictured below is a steep slope area,” the spokesperson wrote.

It’s not clear if the city hired contractors to go into the camp, and it’s unknown when the city’s next planned cleanup trip to the piece of land was scheduled to be, if any was indeed planned.

So, it’s not clear when the person’s remains would have been found, if not for the nonprofit’s actions on Jan. 8.

There, the person’s bones laid, decomposing, in a homeless encampment just dozens of feet from a busy Seattle intersection, in plain sight to any who looked.

Editors’ note: Additional content was added to this piece after the completion of the In Plain Sight video series and the publishing of this written version of Part Three of the series on Wednesday, April 3, 2024, most notably, the March 27, 2024 comments from Seattle Parks and Recreation’s Christopher Williams.

This is the final installment in the three-part series, In Plain Sight. Head to MyNorthwest for the 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: Questions surround We Heart Seattle, King County policies