An Embattled Seattle Trash Pickup Nonprofit Parachutes Into the Pearl District

“This lady pulled out a $20 bill like it was a biscuit, like, ‘Do you want to help?’ I don’t care about the money, I care that you’re intruding on these people’s spaces.”

Last year, Seattle city officials rebuffed We Heart Seattle, a nonprofit that conducts trash pickup and outreach at homeless camps. The Seattle mayor’s office warned that untrained volunteers could endanger themselves by performing such tasks.

Three city council members worried that the group’s ad hoc efforts to shelter unhoused people could create confusion and, at worst, cause trauma. One council member wrote on Twitter, “If this happened to a housed person, this would be considered burglary.”

Last month, the nonprofit applied to participate in a city cleanup day held this past weekend. Mayor Bruce Harrell rejected its application.

That nonprofit has now arrived in Portland, thanks to a $10,000 check from the Pearl District Neighborhood Association. On May 1, We Heart Seattle officially launched a Portland chapter, We Heart Portland.

Its tactics are controversial. The group regularly conducts cleanups within 20 feet of tents—a proximity that Seattle officials warn could spark conflict with the people living in them. And the group’s volunteers encourage campers to get clean from drugs and find indoor shelter, with a persistence that some observers say borders on harassment.

The nonprofit’s founder and executive director, Andrea Suarez, says the “homeless industrial complex” “coddles” and “enables” homeless people, and that mutual aid groups enable and encourage unsheltered homelessness by giving away too much food and tents.

By contrast, Suarez says We Heart Seattle seeks to raise unhoused people above their circumstances.

“We’re truth tellers and we question the status quo, and that hasn’t always gone over well.…Work is a virtue,” Suarez says. “There’s that element of, ‘Someone is cleaning and doing something for me, and I start to feel like that makes more sense than lying over here on garbage and sticking a needle in my arm.’”

The eagerness of the Pearl District to welcome such an organization to town indicates impatience with the city’s response to street camping and trash buildup at a time when Portlanders are growing increasingly disenchanted with conditions on the city’s streets. Indeed, the “tough love” approach of We Heart Seattle echoes the efforts by the business-backed group People for Portland to compel local governments to move unhoused people into shelter.

Stan Penkin, board president of the Pearl District Neighborhood Association, says the buildup of trash at homeless camps left his group no choice but to give the $10,000 to We Heart Portland: “We are doing this because we have to.”

Other Portlanders say the group’s tactics raise several red flags.

Juan Chavez, a Portland civil rights lawyer, says the group’s cleanups are subtly compelling people in a vulnerable state to move. “Stick a uniform on someone or tell them they’ve got a very special mission, and unless the public has the means of reining that in, it’s just unaccountable vigilantism.”

The origin story of We Heart Seattle will sound familiar to many Portlanders: Suarez founded the nonprofit in late 2020 after feeling frustrated with the disrepair of downtown Seattle amid pandemic closures. The organization is mostly volunteer and has only two paid full-time employees and five that are “on call.”

Suarez tells WW the nonprofit raised $300,000 in 2021 and has raised $40,000 so far in 2022, as well as $17,000 in Portland.

WW asked for a breakdown of where the nonprofit spends its dollars since no tax forms have yet been filed. Suarez says 75% of funds raised go to housing and rental assistance, employee wages, gift cards for homeless workers, cellphones, gas—and bus and airfare for homeless people to return to their towns of origin.

The nonprofit also offered WW a list of where it has sent people. Many went to sanctioned camps or shelters, tiny houses or apartments. Three were bused to Bybee Lakes Hope Center, where Suarez says the Portland chapter has already successfully sent a family of four, a family of seven and two other adults.

Eight others were sent by bus or air to destinations in other states, including Georgia, Boston and Indiana. Five others were bused to other places within the state or “bused home,” according to the list. One destination was listed as a “mental hospital.”

Suarez says the group doesn’t compel campers to leave but simply encourages them to get on with their lives. She relishes the criticism her group has received in Seattle.

“The activist class started snowballing and trying to find anything they could on me: ‘Andrea is a fake, she’s a fraud,’” Suarez tells WW. Then she offered some alternative labels for herself: “Social worker? Humanitarian? Mother Teresa?”

Both Suarez and Kevin Dahlgren, president of the nonprofit and the Portland chapter’s leader, have spoken on conservative podcasts about what they say is the government’s lackadaisical response to homelessness.

Dahlgren said on a podcast that homeless people are gifted cars merely by creating Amazon wish lists.

Suarez told a story on a recent podcast about a camper she had helped.

“I wasn’t bringing cookers or tourniquets or needles, and there’s something about us being anti-enablement that the homeless are like, ‘Thank you for not encouraging me.’ He felt loved for the first time,” Suarez told the host. “Giving him a clean needle and more free food and coddling him…he’s just being served in his crib.”

Such sentiments have garnered intense pushback from mutual aid groups and housing advocates in Seattle, sometimes climaxing in confrontation.

Central City Concern, one of Portland’s leading housing nonprofits, says its trash pickup team will not work with We Heart Seattle. “We strongly encourage all volunteers to receive appropriate training before removing potentially dangerous materials,” says spokeswoman Juliana Lukasik.

But few Portlanders have gotten to see the group in action. So WW joined what the nonprofit calls a “litter pick” on Sunday morning in the Pearl District.

At 9 am, close to 20 volunteers in neon safety vests were handed pinchers, plastic gloves and trash bags in the parking lot of an Ace Hardware. They split up and headed off to camps.

Nina was one of the volunteers. She lives at a nearby camp and was told she would get a gift card and some cash if she worked that day. She says volunteers had been visiting her nearly every day for the past week or so, encouraging her to get into shelter or housing. She didn’t care for it.

“One guy told me to move on with my life,” Nina told WW. “You don’t own the earth. Why don’t you clean up your own house area?”

Why, in that case, WW asked, did she agree to help out?

“Because I need money,” Nina said. “I don’t have money.”

At the first camp, volunteers pulled out a shopping cart, tarps, a tent they deemed abandoned, damp food containers and a toaster oven. Volunteers stuffed everything in trash bags and left it on the sidewalk. Suarez said a U-Haul she had rented would take it away later.

Trey, who lived in a tent at the encampment, came out to help, telling WW, “They said they’d pay me or something when we’re done.”

A confrontation took place at the next camp. An unhoused man named Will objected to how close the volunteers got to the cluster of tents. At one point, a volunteer peered into a tent.

“I watched people go in and look into my friend’s tent. That’s his home. If I looked into any of their windows, they’d call the police,” Will said. “This lady pulled out a $20 bill like it was a biscuit, like, ‘Do you want to help?’ I don’t care about the money, I care that you’re intruding on these people’s spaces.”

Suarez, the founder, approached Will. “I’m just here to pick up trash as a form of harm reduction,” Suarez told him. “I’m just here to pick up trash, sir.”

She turned to WW once Will left and said, appearing annoyed: “I don’t see why he’s triggered, but that’s OK, we’re just doing our thing.”

Another homeless man named Ben was handed a $20 bill and a gift card by Suarez at the end of the cleanup. As volunteers headed to River Pig Saloon for lunch, an older Pearl District volunteer asked if Ben would like to join. He lit up as she peppered him with questions about his family.

The volunteers appear well meaning.

John Hollister sits on the Pearl District Neighborhood Association board. He’s proud of getting to know the residents, and feels he’s getting closer to convincing some of them to seek shelter, treatment or housing.

On Sunday, he approached one tent, where he says a man named Jacob who’s addicted to fentanyl is close to accepting help. He walked up to the tent and called for Jacob.

A woman answered, saying Jacob wasn’t there.

“We’ll come back a little later, OK, sweetie?” Hollister said. “Help me nudge him along, OK? I think that’s the best for him, to go to treatment and get off fentanyl.”