Cleaning up encampments remains a key aspect of Seattle’s strategy to address its homeless crisis. But in more than a dozen encampment sweeps over the past five months, The Times witnessed flawed, disorganized efforts that often undermined the city’s goals.

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One morning this spring, under Interstate 5 along Jackson Street, residents of a homeless camp emerged from tents and shelters built from broken branches to find state crews and a dump truck arriving on scene.

The day before, workers had handed out green trash bags, telling the dwellers that cleaning the Seattle site could save them from eviction. The bags sat filled to capacity, but the state crews had returned for a broader mission: to clear out all belongings and people.

The miscommunication left those living in the camp — some cursing, some crying — in a scramble to move personal items across the street before a mini excavator could scoop everything into a truck headed for the dump. The city has emphasized the importance of having outreach workers involved in the camp sweeps to connect the ousted residents to a variety of services. But no outreach workers arrived to help that day.

In observing more than a dozen sweeps that took place across Seattle during the past five months, The Seattle Times witnessed a series of disorganized attempts that undermined the city’s goal of maintaining a humane and productive cleanup process.

The bureaucratic failures were mitigated, in part, by the workers on the ground who were responsible for picking through and cleaning up daunting heaps of trash. One city worker was often seen patiently helping residents pack and move their belongings so that encampment sites could be cleaned of waste that could harm residents. And in interviews, many homeless residents praised the persistence and advocacy of the outreach workers.

Cleaning up encampments is a key factor in Seattle’s strategy to address its homeless crisis, but often leaves homeless residents confused, upset and without important possessions. (Bettina Hansen & Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)

But much of the time, the various city, state and nonprofit agencies struggled to properly coordinate their schedules, leaving homeless residents unclear about the timing of some cleanups and without a chance to connect with an outreach worker. And despite guidelines calling on the city to store personal items that are collected from cleanup sites, homeless residents say they have repeatedly lost critical belongings in the process.

After The Times filed public-records requests and questioned city officials about the cleanup efforts, Mayor Ed Murray sent a letter to council members on July 29, acknowledging flaws with the encampment sweeps and saying he would convene a task force to examine the issue.

“This process is far from perfect and we are constantly trying to find improvement in our practices that will best serve the needs of everyone in our city,” Murray wrote.

On Friday, after this story was posted online, the mayor said future sweeps will include a monitor from the city’s Office for Civil Rights who will ensure that extensive outreach is provided prior to the cleanup and that outreach workers are on scene when cleanups begin.

Jim McBride, a maintenance superintendent for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said state clean up crews are also responsible for maintaining and responding to incidents on I-5, so the fluid schedules make coordination efforts a challenge. The state seeks to partner with the city’s outreach workers whenever possible, but sometimes those schedules also don’t align, McBride said.

McBride acknowledged that crews have thrown away items they likely should have kept, but he noted that it’s sometimes difficult to separate trash from a belonging. One woman complained when the clean up crew took away rocks she was collecting, McBride said.

Sweep strategy

Eleven years ago, regional leaders adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness, and Seattle officials developed guidelines to handle unauthorized encampments in a humane way. Those rules require city officials to give homeless residents 72 hours’ notice before clearing a site and to use outreach workers to connect homeless residents with shelter beds or other services. Officials also planned to store any “personal property items that are not contaminated, illegal, or hazardous” so that owners could claim them later.

Such policies may be needed to avoid legal problems. Just this year, the ACLU and other advocates filed separate lawsuits against the cities of Los Angeles, Honolulu and Fort Wayne, Ind., over the seizure or destruction of the belongings of the homeless. In part, the suits contend that such actions violate the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.

Sweeps remain a central part of Seattle’s strategy to combat its homeless crisis. After Murray declared a state of emergency in November to more effectively address homelessness, the city dedicated roughly one-third of more than $7 million in emergency spending to clean up encampments.

Maintenance workers from the state Department of Transportation notify campers to pack up and move out as a man sleeps in his belongings under Interstate 5 at South Jackson Street. Unoccupied tents were taken down immediately; otherwise campers were given time to move their belongings across the street. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Maintenance workers from the state Department of Transportation notify campers to pack up and move out as a man sleeps in his belongings under Interstate 5 at South Jackson Street. Unoccupied tents were taken down immediately; otherwise campers were given time to move their belongings across the street. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

But the extra resources have clashed with the intractable realities on the ground and the challenges of coordinating multiple bureaucracies at once.

Even this past week, in the wake of Murray’s letter to council members, the city’s cleanup crews started clearing a site under the Ballard Bridge an hour before an outreach team arrived. Most of the residents were already gone by the time the outreach workers showed up.

At one site at the I-5 and Interstate 90 junction in March, the state Department of Transportation began its sweep at least an hour earlier than city officials expected. Outreach arrived to find the residents gone and the remaining belongings already piled into trash heaps.

The next week, at another site nearby, city workers waited for state crews to arrive, not realizing they were two miles away clearing a different group of campers.

At the Jackson Street cleanup in April, a few residents said they’d be interested in connecting with alternative housing options or social services. But the outreach workers who could have helped make such arrangements never made it to the site because they were in training that morning.

A woman under the influence of drugs was taken away by Seattle Fire Department medics after fellow campers found her unresponsive as they packed up when state Department of Transportation maintenance workers came to clear homeless encampments under Interstate 5 at South Jackson Street. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
A woman under the influence of drugs was taken away by Seattle Fire Department medics after fellow campers found her unresponsive as they packed up when state Department of Transportation maintenance workers came to clear homeless encampments under Interstate 5 at South Jackson Street. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

As crews cleared the Jackson Street encampment, residents rushed to preserve their belongings — blankets, mattresses, cups, shoes, toilet paper, a bottle of ketchup. Meanwhile, a cleanup worker crouched under the roadway just above his head, cut open an empty shelter with a knife, then staggered away from the stench and dust emanating from the crude living quarters.

One resident, Mindy Ames, cried and called over the din of I-5 traffic for friends to help her carry bags away.

Another group of residents also cried for help: One of their friends had taken crack cocaine hours before and was unresponsive. An emergency medical crew arrived on the scene to carry the woman down the hillside.

The cleanup never paused.

Disruptive

Chloe Gale, co-director of REACH, a nonprofit program that handles much of the outreach work, said the sweeps disrupt sensitive outreach efforts that can get the homeless into programs and off the street. Some residents may need help getting an ID, or a consistent method of transportation to get drug treatment, and the sweeps make it difficult for outreach workers to follow-up with those they are working to help if they have been run off to a new location.

Gale said her organization would like to see the cleanups be a last resort. Being homeless is traumatizing, and Gale said the cleanups can be re-traumatizing — especially when errors occur that leave people without their belongings.

“It can often set people back,” Gale said.

For sweeps on city property, Seattle officials typically post signs with a specific date and time of each event.

State officials, however, post a 72-hour warning notice on parcels but often don’t come to do the work until days after that time window closes, some camp residents and advocates said. That was the case at state cleanups that The Times attended.

A homeless man waits for workers to remove trash from a neighboring camp in the parking lot on Seventh Avenue between James and Cherry streets. He had a mattress and blankets to sleep under Interstate 5, which they put back after cleaning. “I can fill one bag quickly,” he said, talking about his pleas to get trash bags to keep the area clean. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
A homeless man waits for workers to remove trash from a neighboring camp in the parking lot on Seventh Avenue between James and Cherry streets. He had a mattress and blankets to sleep under Interstate 5, which they put back after cleaning. “I can fill one bag quickly,” he said, talking about his pleas to get trash bags to keep the area clean. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

Many of Seattle’s largest encampments are on state property under and alongside freeways. In the time before the state cleanups occur, those who stay in the camps say the state notices are sometimes pulled down by peers, or new residents move into the area without realizing that the state still hasn’t acted upon the old notice.

Sarah Russo, a 31-year-old newlywed from Idaho who came to Seattle looking for access to better health care and to be closer to her husband’s family, said she never received notice that a crew planned to sweep her site a few blocks east of Safeco Field.

On the second day of the cleanup at the sprawling plot of land on state highway property, a couple of the paper signs were still there, warning people to leave. But Russo said she never saw them.

Eight days after the postings went up, Russo said she was away when crews moved in to clean the site. She returned to find her plot of land empty.

Russo lost her ID, her tent, her clothes and her shoes, she said. The most devastating loss was her wedding outfit — formal black pants and a white top. Through tears, she described the white shirt’s pink trim, its gray stripes and how it flowed behind her back.

Russo said she learned the fate of her belongings from a member of the state’s cleanup crew.

“They didn’t even say sorry,” Russo said. “They just said it was at the dump.”

Some items stored

The city’s guidelines require workers to store items left at the encampments, but it can be difficult to discern what should go to the dump and what should be preserved. At some sites, the piles of trash are so voluminous that it would be an enormous task to sort and store items of potential value.

At the March cleanup near the I-90 and I-5 interchange, crews found tents, a baby carriage, furniture and a stuffed animal. But the items were mixed in with massive amounts of trash and waste, along with some needles. State crews deemed it all to be trash and spent hours filling dump trucks to take everything away.

The Times witnessed a few other encampment sweeps in which city workers salvaged and stored belongings that appeared to have value, or when a site looked particularly well-maintained.

During a sweep next to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center near Lake Union, a city worker in May found two unattended tents that were clean and organized. One had a pair of boots sitting out front of the zippered entrance as if it were a front porch. The items went into the back of a truck with other salvaged belongings so they would be available for pickup at a storage facility.

Yet many residents interviewed mentioned the challenge of finding where their items had gone after a sweep. Some thought the city’s Human Services Department might have them, because that agency is responsible for managing homeless issues. Others thought maybe the Police Department would store the items. Or perhaps whichever agency had led the cleanup.

When a reporter called the city help number that’s left at many cleaned encampments, even the person answering the phone didn’t know where the belongings had been stored.

Salvaged items are in a building where the Seattle Department of Transportation makes signs. The facility is in an industrial area that’s about an hourlong walk from the city’s downtown core.

At the sign shop, documents catalog what has made it to storage: sleeping bags, suitcases, tents, photo albums, bibles, personal papers, a journal, dog bowls, children’s clothes, a teddy bear. Weeks after they had been collected, the clean tents and boots near the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center were still in storage.

Kenny Alcantara, signs and markings manager at the Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) sign shop on Airport Way, shows the inside of a storage container filled with belongings from homeless camps. At SDOT’s discretion, they sometimes save items from cleanups and leave a note with Alcantara’s information and a map to the sign shop for them to be retrieved. People going into shelter can also choose to leave their stuff in storage with SDOT. They keep belongings for up to 60 days. “We probably get less than 1 percent of stuff getting picked up,” Alcantara said. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Kenny Alcantara, signs and markings manager at the Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) sign shop on Airport Way, shows the inside of a storage container filled with belongings from homeless camps. At SDOT’s discretion, they sometimes save items from cleanups and leave a note with Alcantara’s information and a map to the sign shop for them to be retrieved. People going into shelter can also choose to leave their stuff in storage with SDOT. They keep belongings for up to 60 days. “We probably get less than 1 percent of stuff getting picked up,” Alcantara said. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

Kenny Alcantara, who manages the Seattle DOT sign shop, said only 1 or 2 percent of the materials that are stored in the shop are ever picked up. The department doesn’t have the resources to seek out homeless residents to reconnect them with their belongings, he said, so almost all of it ends up in the trash.

“Obviously, for people that don’t have anything, this stuff here is their everything,” Alcantara said. “That’s very difficult — to throw things away that probably mean something to people is probably the toughest part.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect changes announced Friday by Mayor Ed Murray to the city policy on homeless camp sweeps.