Whether you call them “cleanups” or “sweeps,” more actions to shut down unauthorized homeless encampments and help their residents are coming to Seattle.

Share story

Seattle officials call them cleanups. Some homeless advocates call them sweeps.

The city posts notices on a hillside, in a park or under a highway telling the people sleeping there they have 72 hours to take their belongings and move along. Three days later, crews show up to make the unauthorized encampment disappear.

Whatever you call them, more are coming. Officials say that’s a good thing because unauthorized encampments are dangerous for residents. They say the city will spend extra money this winter to move the campers indoors.

Annual stats

Here’s how many unauthorized homeless encampments have been shut down by Seattle officials:

80 in 2012

131 in 2013

351 in 2014

527 in 2015 (through late November)

But advocates are anxious. They worry there won’t be enough spending to help everyone who gets displaced. The number of people living on the streets is too large, they say.

There were 80 cleanups in 2012, 131 in 2013 and 351 in 2014. There have been 527 this year through late November, partly because there are now better options for passers-by to report camps and fewer nooks to hide amid all of Seattle’s construction, officials say.

Some Ballard residents upset over unauthorized camping and other issues in the neighborhood met Saturday to discuss the situation and call for more police involvement.

“We’re always enthusiastic about the city adding resources for people desperately struggling to survive outside,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “The most important issue, however, is ensuring we have enough appropriate and accessible shelter to meet their needs.”

When Mayor Ed Murray proclaimed a homelessness state of emergency Nov. 2, he said it would end only after a significant reduction in the number of people dying while sleeping outdoors in Seattle (the tally for 2015 was 47 at the time). To that end, he allocated $5 million in emergency funds, including money earmarked to help people move out of unauthorized encampments.

Then the mayor made good on a promise dating back to this past winter by opening authorized tent encampments on Seattle City Light properties in Ballard and Interbay.

The sanctioned sites, which Murray describes as imperfect but better than illegal camping, are expected to accommodate more than 100 people between them.

Tim Harris, executive director of the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project, is a supporter of the authorized encampments. His concern is that the sites may be seen as giving officials cover to go after illegal camping in an overly aggressive way.

“The mayor realized there was a perception in the business community and the neighborhoods that the encampments were out of control. He’s responding to that,” Harris said. “He opened up legal ones and what goes along with that is closing illegal ones. What advocates are looking at is how intensive the sweeps are going to be.”

Better outreach

Jason Johnson, deputy director of Seattle’s Human Services Department, said there’s no new cause for concern. The city will continue to use cleanup protocols it introduced in 2008, Johnson said. The emergency funds are paying for 100 additional shelter beds and more robust aid to people in unauthorized encampments, he said.

“What we’re trying to do now is enhance the level of outreach,” Johnson said.

For years, the city has responded to reports of unauthorized encampments by sending a single team of two outreach workers along with cleanup crews.

In many cases, the outreach workers simply handed people a list of ways to seek help, then moved on, Johnson said. Soon there will be three teams, each with two outreach workers, a case manager, a field coordinator and police backup, he said.

One team will focus on youth. Each will be able to place people from unauthorized encampments directly into shelters, and each team will have access to cash.

They’ll use the cash to do things like book people into motels, buy them groceries so they can stay with friends or relatives and buy them bus tickets home, Johnson said.

The new approach already is under way and paying off, he said, citing a cleanup earlier this month at Interstate 90 and Rainier Avenue South of 27 tents.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Four people there when the crew arrived agreed to access case-management services, two were given cash-assistance for rapid rehousing, two were booked into a motel, two were referred to a legal tent city, one was referred to a car-camping program, one went to a shelter and several were given bus tickets, Johnson said.

Once the people are gone, crews throw out items deemed to be trash. Other belongings are kept for 60 days, and notices are posted telling people where they can pick them up.

Another perspective

Mark Combs, caught up in a recent sweep, saw a different side of the cleanup. The 54-year-old moved to Seattle earlier this year after his release from federal prison because a friend recommended it as homeless-friendly. Combs has been camping illegally for just a few months but already has had to move a number of times.

“They treat us rude, harass us, threaten us and take our property,” he said. Though he describes his short stay in “The Jungle” — the Beacon Hill greenbelt above Interstate 5 where many homeless people camp — as hellish, and other sites as not much better, Combs said he’d rather sleep outside than in a shelter.

Sharlie Hoit, 43, was a target of another recent cleanup, at Fourth Avenue and Yesler Way downtown. She had just been released from the county jail. “I was in a tent and a police officer came up and said, ‘You have to move now. Get your stuff and go,’ ” Hoit recalled. “There were some people there who were really willing to help. They offered me services. They said there were places I could stay the night. But I was kind of intoxicated. I wasn’t ready to deal with it at the time.”

Hoit is now staying in a tent under Highway 99 in Sodo, she said from outside the Urban Rest Stop downtown, where homeless people can do laundry and shower.

Ronni Gilboa, who manages the Urban Rest Stop, said officials are basing their effort on the number of people found outside during the annual One Night Count.

While the count in January found 2,813 people outdoors in Seattle, Gilboa said she thinks the true number is many thousands more. Even with the emergency funds, there won’t be enough shelter beds and motel rooms for all of them this winter, she said.

“But poverty is untidy,” Gilboa said. “Nobody wants to look at it or realize it.”

Johnson acknowledged: “We don’t have the inventory to provide a roof overhead to every single person who’s unsheltered.”

He said the goal is to start moving people through the shelter system and into permanent housing more quickly so the beds that already exist help more people.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.