City rules governing unsanctioned homeless camp cleanups require offers of shelter. But the high-demand shelters are full, and clean ups have slowed down.
For months, Jose Rizal Park has hosted one of the city’s largest homeless encampments, a collection of tents and people near the intersection of Interstate 90 and I-5.
Police and outreach workers with the city of Seattle know it is there, have visited it — but haven’t shut it down, partly because there aren’t enough shelter beds for the people living there.
Citywide, removal of homeless encampments has slowed significantly since the fall, when a high of 19 camps were removed in a month, down to 11 in January. The number of tents removed has fallen from a peak of 301 in September to 124 last month — showing the city is clearing smaller camps, but not bigger ones like at Jose Rizal.
Under city rules, the city workers doing the camp removals, called the Navigation Team, must offer shelter beds to people in unauthorized camps before the city can remove the site, unless it poses an immediate danger.
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But the shelters that tend to appeal the most to people living in the camps — those that operate 24/7, do not require residents to be sober and can often accommodate couples and pets — are full and beds aren’t turning over quickly.
There still are some shelter beds available, which is why cleans of the estimated 400 unsanctioned camps citywide have not halted.
“We don’t have the same capacity that we did have,” said Jackie St. Louis, the Navigation Team leader, at a Tuesday meeting of the advisory committee created to monitor the city’s encampment removal operations.
But the lack of shelter beds that appeal to people in unsanctioned camps poses a problem for Seattle’s new strategy to address homelessness. And the pace of cleanups is a concern to residents and businesses who want to see the camps closed.
Difficult to engage
The city created the Navigation Team last February in response to the haphazard, disorganized way homeless camp removals were done.
Since launching, the team has made 7,342 contacts with more than 1,800 individuals. They have referred 675 people to “safe” alternatives — that typically means shelter, but it can include a reconnection with family or a bus ticket home.
But under the city’s rules for clearing camps, which were adopted as policy and tweaked by the Seattle City Council the Navigation Team’s hands are often tied: they are largely dependent on the availability of shelter beds.
The most in demand shelters are the 100-bed Compass-First Presbyterian shelter, which opened in September; the Licton Springs Village sanctioned encampment, which includes tiny homes and tents and opened in March; and the 75-bed Navigation Center, which opened in July. All allow alcohol and other substance use, operate 24/7, and are consistently full.
Yvonne Nelson, a REACH outreach case manager who works with the Navigation Team, said the slowdown really began once the Compass-First Presbyterian shelter filled up about a month ago; the other two locations were already seeing low turnover by then.
That has made outreach harder, particularly when the team encounters couples, people with pets or those with a lot of belongings, she said.
“It’s difficult to engage when you don’t have anything to offer anyone,” Nelson said. ”However, we’re still able to engage with other services, like identification, transportation, connections to mental health (services), drug clinics and things like that.”
The falloff in cleanups underscores the challenge Seattle faces as it attempts to fulfill its goal of getting 7,400 people into housing this year, and to reform its homeless services.
Under the city’s new plan, it focuses on getting people into so-called “enhanced shelters” that offer caseworkers and social services, with the ultimate goal of moving them into permanent housing quickly.
That requires the homeless system to work as an assembly line of services, moving at a steady pace.
That’s often not happening.
Between July and December last year, only 13 percent of the Navigation Center clients had moved on to housing. On average, clients stayed longer than the 60-day limit originally set by the city.
The city plans to convert 85 percent of its 1,464 shelter beds to the enhanced model by years-end.
The slowdown is being noticed in Seattle neighborhoods. Theresa Barker lives near Ravenna and Cowen Parks in Northeast Seattle. At one point, there were at least two dozen homeless sites in the parks, some occupied and some abandoned, Barker said.
She praised the Navigation Team’s work last fall, but said they seemed increasingly less responsive as she and other neighbors called the city.
It’s “very hard to continue using the park when you’re feeling like you’re not sure of your safety,” Barker said.
Recently, the city parks department cleaned up the vacant campsites. On Feb. 4, the Navigation team cleaned up some of the remaining occupied camps, Barker said. She’s cautiously optimistic, but knows that the bed shortage means the problem could creep up again in the park.
There’s a general consensus among many city officials that more affordable housing is needed to address the issue.
Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed using half of an $11 million sale of city property in South Lake Union to build tiny homes. Some council members have pushed back on this plan, favoring other homeless services.
City Council is also revisiting the possibility of taxing high-earning local businesses and using the revenues to combat homelessness, though how the money would be spent is unclear.
Officials with the Navigation Team emphasize that the camp cleanups continue, although of smaller camps. And beds in homeless shelters are still available, but those spots are often in facilities less popular with homeless people, places where residents must be sober, there’s a curfew or they must leave during the day.
One day this week, no spots were available at the Navigation Center or Licton Springs and nine were open at Compass-First Presbyterian.
Another 18 beds were available at three other facilities, including three spaces at Compass’ Blaine Center, which is an enhanced facility but requires sobriety. The other spots were in mats-on-the-floor, overnight, survival shelters.