The city of Seattle’s customer service bureau was swamped last week when an anonymous poster campaign encouraging residents to report tent camps went viral online, resulting in a far-reaching backlash that produced bogus complaints from as far away as Australia.
The teal-blue posters, bearing the slogan “See a tent? Report a tent,” urged Seattleites to use the city’s Find It, Fix It app — a mobile tool for residents to ask for utility repairs, animal control and other public services — to request that the city remove homeless campers. The posters, all or most of which have been taken down, went up late last week in central Seattle neighborhoods including Capitol Hill and Mount Baker.
But left-leaning activists, arguing that reporting people experiencing homelessness was “inhumane” and “heartless,” rallied supporters on Twitter last weekend to protest the posters by submitting bogus reports on the app.
One Twitter user shared a screenshot of a Find It, Fix It request for the city to clear out all the tents at REI stores. Other users tweeted they had filed requests for service in their hometowns around the world, as far away as Alabama, Australia and Europe.
Over 100 of the service requests were tagged at REI’s flagship location, data from the city showed. “Can’t believe how many tents are at this place, genuinely horrifying. all shapes and sizes, too,” one user wrote on the complaint form.
“You’re gross for trying to make people into cops,” wrote another user. “JINGLE BELLS, SEATTLE SMELLS,” submitted another.
The poster campaign and backlash come weeks before a hotly contested Aug. 6 Seattle City Council primary activated by what many Seattleites see as the city’s lackluster response to homelessness despite a 4-year-old declared state of emergency and a $90 million annual spend to address the issue.
The hoax caused the number of service requests submitted through the app to skyrocket from previous weekends’ baseline of roughly 40 requests per day to 210 requests on Saturday and 891 requests on Sunday, according to the city department that oversees the app.
About 90% of the requests submitted last weekend were spam, and after the bogus reports were screened out, there did not appear to have been an increase in actual reports of people living outside, said city spokesperson Cyndi Wilder. The weekend saw the highest volume of service requests since a 2017 spike in pothole reports.
Wilder confirmed that the city had “received some photos of tents that appear to have been downloaded from retail websites.”
The spam slowed an already-backlogged system designed to respond to reports of people camping outside. It took two staff members six hours to manually screen the reports received over the weekend.
Over the past 13 weeks, roughly 11% percent of all service requests to Find It, Fix It were about unauthorized camping, according to the office that oversees the app. A spokesperson for the Navigation Team, the city’s most visible homeless-outreach arm, said it receives so many requests, including through the app, that it can take days or weeks for team members to visit a campsite and determine whether to remove the people living there.
No one has stepped forward to claim ownership of the posters, but community groups, as well as the city, have previously promoted the app as a tool to report people experiencing homelessness for removal. In 2017, the executive director of the Ballard Alliance, the neighborhood chamber of commerce, encouraged business owners to help flood the app with reports of people sleeping outside in Ballard, The Stranger reported.
Ballard Alliance did not return repeated requests for comment. The Seattle Times reached out to several other community groups on both sides of the debate and all denied being behind the posters.
The city confirmed it had nothing to do with the posters in response to a question from City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda in Monday’s meeting of the select committee on homelessness and housing affordability. In a written statement, Mosqueda criticized using Find It, Fix It as “a tool to further traumatize people experiencing homelessness” and pledged to study how the city acted on reports of people sleeping outside made through the app.
In response to widespread, unsanctioned tent camping citywide, Seattle officials tout outreach efforts by the Navigation Team, which tries to connect people experiencing homelessness with resources before they are displaced. However, the policy remains controversial with homeless-rights advocates, who say Seattle is simply moving people from spot to spot, and with some neighborhood and business groups, who are frustrated by the speed of the city’s response to complaints.
In the first four months of 2019, the city stepped up removals of people sleeping outdoors without authorization by 75% compared to the same period last year, reflecting a focus on campsites deemed hazards or obstructions to the right-of-way. Those don’t require three days’ notice or preliminary visits from outreach workers.
Preliminary second-quarter data suggests those trends are accelerating: June saw 84 obstruction and hazard removals, a number almost equal to the 92 such sweeps conducted over the first five months of the year.
Meanwhile, the number of people the Navigation Team referred to shelter dropped by half in the first three months of 2019, from 432 referrals last year to 222 this year, although the city’s data collection methods changed in that time period, making year-over-year comparisons tenuous.