Hundreds of asylum-seeking refugees create encampment in Central District park

Apr 30, 2024, 8:26 AM | Updated: 4:31 pm


Tents housing the refugees at Powell Barnett Park in Seattle's Central District. (Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

Asylum-seeking refugees from South America and Africa are now staying at an encampment at Powell Barnett Park in Seattle’s Central District after being shuffled around the county for the past year.

Dozens of blue, orange and green tents have sprouted up across the park, now a temporary home for hundreds of refugees. There are approximately 200 refugees at the park, including many children. According to KIRO 7, hundreds more are coming.

According to KIRO Newsradio, the refugees have been moved from place to place in King County as temporary aid from cities runs out, leaving the group in and out of hotels.

“Neighbors say they want a long-term solution too, but for now, the future of these refugees is as tentative and improvised as their camping site,” KIRO Newsradio’s Sam Campbell reported while live at the scene.

Markovich on King County funding to help house asylum seekers: Elected officials need accountability for their ‘generosity’ with our tax dollars

Within the refugee encampment

One of the refugees staying in the camp, Samuel from the Democratic Republic of Congo, spoke to KIRO Newsradio using a translator named over a phone call. Samuel, who speaks Portuguese, said language barriers remain a critical hindrance for many of the refugees in seeking any kind of temporary employment while they try to feed their families.

“They have children who were born here, they have kids who are in school here. They are the future of America,” he said. “They’re asking for support to be able to stay here.”

He said the families – which he estimates at 250 people crowding into dozens of tents – are relying mostly on donations of food from nearby community members.

“You have families here with little children who are sleeping outside,” he said. “There isn’t enough food for the families or for the children.”

He said he’s very appreciative of the support neighbors have given, but stated that more help is needed. He’s one of many in the camp calling on local governments to offer aid in housing and meal stipends. Samuel’s translator, who provided only her first name, Lezlie, said she is Brazilian but living in Philadelphia. She’s been in contact with the refugees here through friends who are now volunteering to help the group in King County.

People in green jackets told KIRO they aren’t affiliated with any organization. Instead, they are “mutual aid” volunteers trying to coordinate donations and security for the group of refugees. Despite the camp being set up overnight Monday, one volunteer said the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department must be aware of the situation as locks that were placed on the park’s bathroom were removed and the bathrooms thoroughly cleaned.

Seattle Mayor Harrell’s office responds

On Tuesday, a spokesperson from Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Office sent a response about the encampment to KIRO Newsradio. The spokesperson stated the city has asked the Washington State Department of Social Health and Services to “provide support needed to understand the number of impacted individuals and families and their specific needs to inform future actions.”

The spokesperson also said it is “not healthy nor safe to camp in a park” and the mayor’s office will continue creating connections to distribute available resources.

“The city has exhausted its allocated funding for migrant shelter and services. This constrains our ability to staff and operate city facilities for emergency shelter needs. Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA) has continued to support a coordinated response between public sector partners and private entities exploring opportunities to support these efforts,” said the statement.

The spokesperson then referenced the recent investment of $2 million in funding from King County for temporary housing for refugees. Also, the $30 million passed by the state legislature for shelter and resources for migrants and asylum seekers.

“Such a statewide, systemic response plan is necessary to avoid the continued cycling of migrants in and out of short-term hotel stays,” said the statement.

We look to the State, County, and services providers that have been awarded funding to leverage resources to meet the immediate housing needs of these impacted individuals and families, as well as long-term solutions to this crisis. Additionally, OIRA is funding the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Colectiva Legal del Pueblo to provide legal services including assistance with filing asylum applications and application support for employment authorizations,” the statement continued.

Origins of the refugee encampment

More than 600 refugees — most hailing from Venezuela, Angola and Congo — arrived at the Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila last year. Unwilling to turn those in need away, the church converted itself into a cramped shelter for the refugees.

It’s unclear why the church became a respite for refugees, but Sojourners stated a shelter told the refugees the church would provide support. Last October, the City of Tukwila declared a state of emergency regarding the influx of asylum seekers.

“The Tukwila community has always been welcoming to refugees and immigrants from around the world. Many new arrivals to the United States have called Tukwila home in their pathway to citizenship,” Tukwila Mayor Allan Ekberg said amid the state of emergency. “Addressing the needs of asylum seekers is bigger than one city and requires leadership and support from King County, the state of Washington, and the federal government.”

More on Tukwila’s State of Emergency: Tukwila declares State of Emergency to get support to asylum seekers

Asylum-seekers were moved to a hotel in Kent in January after the church became overcrowded. King County issued funds, specifically $3 million, to keep the refugees sheltered in 100 hotel rooms, but when the money ran out, the refugees were forced back outside. At one point, they set up camp on top of the tennis courts outside the Garfield Community Center in Seattle.

An anonymous donation kept the group of asylum-seeking refugees at the Quality Inn for an additional 11 days in Kent.

More on the anonymous donation: Asylum-seeking refugees in Kent get to stay in hotel for another 11 days

The asylum process in the U.S. is long, with the average legal asylum seeker often waiting four years to get their asylum request in front of a federal immigration judge.

Governor Inslee’s office stated the legislature has upped the budget to help new arrivals to the state by $32 million, according to KING 5.

Contributing: Sam Campbell, KIRO Newsradio

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

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Hundreds of asylum-seeking refugees create encampment in Central District park