Housing activists rallied outside Seattle City Hall Wednesday afternoon and crowded a budget hearing in protest of the city’s removal of unauthorized homeless camps. The “sweeps” have become a focal point in the city’s efforts to combat homelessness.
An army of housing activists flooded a hearing at Seattle City Hall on Wednesday night, loudly demanding the city stop removing unauthorized homeless encampments, despite officials’ argument that some camps are a danger to the public and the inhabitants themselves.
The protest, organized by the newly formed Housing for All Coalition and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, marked the second anniversary of the city’s declaration of a state of emergency on homelessness. It intended to spotlight what the coalition says is a lack of substantial progress in housing the thousands of people living on its streets even as Seattle housing prices become increasingly unaffordable.
Protesters also planned to camp outside City Hall overnight.
Less than two hours before the rally was to start, Mayor Tim Burgess sent a memo to council members warning a budget proposal by Sawant to stop encampment removals “will create an elevated public health and safety risk to the people of Seattle.”
The memo, which included letters of support from city department heads and the president of the Seattle firefighters union, estimated there are 400 unauthorized tent camps in the city.
Debate about what to do about them has become a flashpoint in the homeless crisis and in the city’s 2018 budget debate.
Sawant wrote a budget proviso that could, with a few exceptions, cut all funding for the removals. Sawant and others, including mayoral candidate Cary Moon, call the removals “sweeps,” and the council member accuses city officials of being more concerned about mopping up the camps than helping the people in them.
The Wednesday night council budget hearing became an unofficial referendum on the city’s high housing prices, as the line of people who wanted to speak stretched down a staircase and out City Hall’s front door.
“The sweeps are an epic waste of money,” said Simon Stephens, co-founder of Stop the Sweeps, a loose group of organizations focused on helping homeless people. “We don’t need to move people around to be able to help them.”
Supporters of the city’s tent-camp-removal policies were significantly outnumbered at the hearing, and at times their testimony was drowned out. Several members of the group Speak Out Seattle!, which supports the removals, spoke, and at least one person expressed fear because of negative encounters with homeless people in her neighborhood.
In an interview Wednesday, Burgess said the city does not do sweeps but takes targeted action against sites that pose public-health risks. His administration has argued they have done much to reform the removal and tent-camp cleanup process.
Earlier this year, the city launched its Navigation Team, made up of outreach workers and police officers who go to the camps to offer services and act as liaisons to camp residents when a removal is deemed necessary. Campers are given at least 72 hours’ notice if a site is designated for cleanup.
In addition to cleanups, the Navigation Team made more than 5,800 contacts with people living in homeless encampments between February and late October, according to data the city provided to The Seattle Times. At least 581 people accepted referrals to safe shelter spaces, and 946 people accepted some form of service or help.
In that same time period, the team removed 143 camps, ranging from a single tent blocking a sidewalk to those with several dozen tents and structures.
The team has been “exceptionally successful” at getting services to homeless people, Burgess said in the interview.
He also noted that city workers removed more than 6 million pounds of trash and human waste from the unauthorized encampments that were cleaned. “The public health risks posed by this trash should not be minimized,” Burgess wrote.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold, the budget-committee chair, did not include Sawant’s version of the proviso in an initial budget package. Instead, Herbold’s budget calls for increased scrutiny of the removal process, including weekly reports on how the city applies its removal policies.
Herbold remains concerned that removals are driven more by citizen complaints than the city’s actual prioritization criteria. From February to late October, the city received nearly 4,400 complaints from the public about homeless encampments, nearly double the amount from 2016 and quadruple the total from 2015.
Sawant was unconvinced by Herbold’s compromise legislation, saying the new proviso does nothing, leaving interpretation of the removal rules in the hands of the city executive. In contrast, Sawant said her original proviso would inject “a little bit of humanity in how the city deals with homeless people.”
Herbold’s proposal, Sawant said, “essentially is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
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A letter to council members signed by nine city department officials, including Seattle Police Chief Katherine O’Toole, emphasized camps are prioritized for removal if they exhibit public-health and safety risks.
If Sawant’s version of the proviso were to pass, some of the city’s most notorious and dangerous homeless encampments — among them the Jungle, the Field and the Spokane Street corridor — never would have closed, the letter said.
Not being able to close down camps would result in more unauthorized camps in public parks and an increase in fire and other risks to city infrastructure, and would hinder policing of criminal activity, put public safety officials at risk, and expose the city to “significant legal liability,” the letter said.
The Navigation Team is supposed to remove camps only if there’s enough available shelter space for everyone living there.
However, the team can quickly remove camps, even if shelter space is unavailable, if the site is considered a hazard, such as on a highway exit ramp.
But there’s no requirement that camp residents must accept the shelter options they’re given. Often, the people who are removed from the camps simply set up in new locations, Sawant said.
During a recent visit to an existing homeless encampment, a Seattle Times reporter met at least two residents who had lived in some of the now-closed camps.
Also, critically, shelter space is limited.
“You can’t navigate people into services and homes that don’t exist,” said recently appointed Councilmember Kirsten Harris-Talley.
At a council budget meeting on Tuesday, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw repeatedly called for 1,000 people to be housed over the next 100 days, but it was not clear how that initiative could be funded. Herbold’s budget presentation was $450,000 for new authorized encampments
Regarding the Navigation Team, Bagshaw said it represents a huge improvement over the way the city used to conduct removals, when camp residents were simply told they had to leave.
“Of course we’re not doing enough, but we’re doing more than we were,” Bagshaw said.