A woman marched up to Jenny Durkan in a supermarket last month and spoke the one word that has dominated almost every conversation with constituents since the Seattle mayor took office: Homelessness. “Then she walked away,” Durkan recalled.

Had she stayed to chat, Durkan likely would have told her about adding more shelter beds last year and help for households on the brink of homelessness, and about the city’s progress to merge services with King County.

But what Durkan might not have mentioned is that the city is more aggressively removing tents from sidewalks and parks. That would have been a more delicate conversation.

Seattle removed 75% more homeless encampments in the first four months of this year than during the same period in 2018, even with this February’s record snowstorm slowing clean-ups.

Yet the city hasn’t highlighted the dramatic uptick in any official announcement. Durkan hasn’t trumpeted the approach as a crackdown on visible homelessness. And advocates are protesting less.

Instead, the mayor is mostly letting her administration’s cleanups speak for themselves. That’s left even some sympathetic stakeholders outside City Hall unsure what exactly the administration is trying to accomplish on the streets, and why.

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“With Jenny Durkan, it’s still not clear what direction they’re taking with all of this. I’m still not clear what’s going on,” said Quynh Pham, executive director of Friends of Little Saigon.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

The increase in removals has been driven partly by a change in emphasis from time-consuming cleanups of sprawling camps to swift cleanups of smaller camps judged to be obstructions, hazards or persistently troublesome.

Early in Durkan’s term, most removals involved large camps, which under city rules require extensive outreach, 72-hour notice and offers of shelter to everyone. Cleanups of smaller encampments that don’t require notice have surged — from 11 in the first four months of 2018 to 93 in that time period this year, according to data the city provided while removals of larger camps dropped by more than half.

Meanwhile, Seattle, beginning about a year ago, ramped up effort to tow and clean up around RVs used as homes.

The mayor says her approach is consistent with her 2017 campaign promises, and is not a reaction to KOMO-TV’s controversial “Seattle is Dying” documentary, which stirred anger as this year’s City Council elections heated up.

“I think it was clear on the campaign trail what the philosophy was going to be,” she said. “I still believe strongly that leaving people in place, in inhumane and unsafe conditions, is not a strategy the city can have.”

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Overall, King County’s one-night count of homelessness dropped this year for the first time since 2012 as Seattle’s spending on the problem rose to about $90 million. Many, however, viewed those numbers with skepticism, particularly the decreased count of chronically homeless people living outside.

Quickly clearing homeless camps may buy some goodwill with frustrated voters and neighborhood business leaders as Durkan works on long-term solutions to behavioral health and housing crises, for which state and federal disinvestment are partly responsible.

But touting hard-nosed methods also could inflame concerns in liberal Seattle about mistreating homeless people. It could also invite legal trouble, particularly with no new permanent shelter beds added in 2019.

As she closes in on two years in office, it’s unclear whether Durkan can make substantial change before patience on both sides runs out.

“Increased focus”

Charlie Costanzo, policy chair for the Ballard Alliance business group, has noticed and appreciated more regular cleanups in Ballard Commons Park and downtown Ballard than were carried out under Durkan’s predecessor, Ed Murray, and he says there’s been an “avowal to do more.”

“What we’ve heard from City Hall is an increased focus on areas that we have repeatedly raised as problematic locations for encampments and crime,” said Costanzo, regional vice president of a tugboat, towboat and barge industry association.

Ballard business owners say they know that unsheltered people, rather than somehow disappearing when their camps are swept, often move down the street. But some sites are better for the neighborhood than others, Costanzo said. 

Jackie St. Louis, manager with Unsheltered Crisis Response, hands a granola bar to a person in a bus in the Sodo neighborhood during outreach by Seattle’s Navigation Team. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Jackie St. Louis, manager with Unsheltered Crisis Response, hands a granola bar to a person in a bus in the Sodo neighborhood during outreach by Seattle’s Navigation Team. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

“The short-term choice is … stark and brutal,” he said. “Do you want to step over the guy shooting up as you come out of a restaurant or do you want that guy quietly shooting up by the railroad tracks?” 

At the same time, Costanzo wonders where the city is headed. Camps continue to “sprout up like mushrooms” and cars on some blocks “are still getting rifled every night,” he said. 

Although Pham sees “more effort” by Seattle to coordinate cleanups with services, she harbors lingering concerns about the process of clearing encampments in and around the Chinatown International District, which has seen a spike in camping since Murray cleared “The Jungle” under Interstate 5.

When the Durkan administration recently cleared out a massive camp above South Dearborn Street, Pham was discouraged to learn some campers were longtime community members and that the city didn’t have interpreters ready.

“I’ve been talking about this so long with the city about who’s being served and if homeless services were actually reaching folks who might have cultural and language barriers,” Pham said.

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“What actually works”

Not long ago, Murray was under as much pressure from business owners and homeowners as from activists who packed City Hall chanting, “Stop the sweeps!”

That movement has all but evaporated, however. Losing a battle over a per-employee tax on large businesses last year — which would’ve funded homeless and housing services — knocked the wind out of Seattle’s left-wing stalwarts.

“People are burnt out and demoralized,” said Katie Wilson, a leader with the Transit Riders Union activist group. “There’s still kind of some activist energy around sweeps and at least trying to help individual people … but definitely not the kind of coordinated effort that we saw.”

Homeless advocates do remain critical of Durkan’s efforts. Tiffani McCoy, lead organizer with street newspaper Real Change, said clearing the city’s large encampments led to a “diaspora” of tents onto sidewalks and into parks. The city should be channeling even more money into “what actually works,” McCoy said — scaled-up investments in permanent supportive housing and housing-first strategies.

“It just seems like we are spending a lot of human time and energy trying to find a quick fix, like the silver bullet,” McCoy said.

Cities that ban sleeping outside without shelter alternatives risk being sued. A recent federal ruling out of Boise, Idaho, found that an ordinance there that criminalized sleeping on the street was unconstitutional when those people had nowhere else to go.

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Breanne Schuster, an attorney with the ACLU of Washington, said the Durkan administration’s use of same-day removals “suggests that the city is attempting to use a law enforcement and criminalization approach to solve a social issue.”

The ACLU of Washington has already sued the city over the way property is handled during encampment removals. Any effort to further decrease visible homelessness through enforcement would have to avoid legal quicksand.

On the streets

Between the Elliott Bay Trail and railroad tracks near the Port of Seattle, about 50 tents crowded a narrow strip of gravel and dirt. A Real Change vendor named Zac hoisted a backpack and zipped up his tent.

Under removal rules, Seattle could designate the camp an obstruction and immediately remove it. But clearing so many people out in a day would be difficult. “Nobody swept us through the whole winter,” Zac said, as bikes whizzed by and a train rumbled past.

Moving campers quickly from sidewalks and parks makes sense, said the newspaper vendor, who became homeless in Seattle when a relationship and housing situation in Bremerton collapsed.

“Those spots are more unacceptable to be camping in,” he said. “Here, we’re not really bothering people.”

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The city’s Navigation Team, which does outreach and carries out the tent removals, has visited several times, with an eye toward clearing the camp in July. Team coordinator Jackie St. Louis persuaded a pregnant woman there to seek shelter, but a young couple were unable to move inside because they use drugs.

August Drake-Ericson, operations manager with Seattle’s Navigation Team, speaks with the resident of a tent near Alaskan Way South in Seattle. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
August Drake-Ericson, operations manager with Seattle’s Navigation Team, speaks with the resident of a tent near Alaskan Way South in Seattle. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Elsewhere in Sodo, on an industrial road lined with tents and recreational vehicles, 30-year-old Melissa Speed poked her head from her tent to ask when she had to move.

“We have until Wednesday, right?”

Speed estimated she’s been told to move by the city at least 30 times over the 3½ years she’s been living outside. Now, it’s happening more often. “It’s a constant circle,” she said.

Speed said she’s been trying to quit drugs, but it’s nearly impossible when living on the street and being surrounded by friends and neighbors offering quick hits. There are limited shelter beds for people currently using drugs, and she doesn’t feel safe in most shelters.

“If you’re using, you’re basically forgotten,” she said.

The situation is wearing down Seattle firefighters, who compare their aid calls to playing whack-a-mole. “We keep going out to respond,” Local 27 President Kenny Stuart said. “It just doesn’t seem like things are getting better.”

Stuart agrees with Durkan that leaving Seattle’s encampments alone would be even worse. He describes the camps as “disgusting, unhealthy and unsanitary” sites where drug dealers and predators seek prey.

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But Stuart worries that some housed people oversimplify the reasons why their neighbors remain stuck on the street. “This (problem) is not like a car that has a noisy muffler. It’s people,” he said.

What people see

A recent Elway poll asked Seattle and King County voters what they would need to see to be convinced that progress on homelessness was being made: nearly 60% wanted less “visible” homelessness, from tents to trash piles.

Only one in five voters in the poll, commissioned by a group of local philanthropies, chose more shelters or housing, and even fewer identified the answer as data or statistics — a point of pride for the Durkan administration, which last year instituted performance-based contracts in a push for accountability.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who’s running for reelection, said she tries to use the city’s removals to reassure voters, and ultimately gain their support for long-term work. When people complain about camps, Herbold shows them weekly reports on removals to prove the city’s acting.

“The next thing they say is, “But (the encampments) come right back,” the council member said, describing that moment as an opportunity to make her case for additional spending on housing.

Durkan also believes her constituents are learning “to have more sophisticated discussions” about homelessness, “understanding how complicated this is and how we can make gains … moving people into long-term housing.”

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But the mayor is less explicit about using her administration’s removals as a teaching tool.

She prefers to highlight shelter beds initially added in 2018 and made permanent this year, as well as bigger investments in housing vouchers and diversion. She has twice expanded the Navigation Team, which her office credits with connecting more people on the street with services.

The city also exceeded a goal to count 7,000 “exits” from city-funded programs into permanent housing, including people who maintained permanent supportive housing. “Almost every metric and indicator shows we’re making progress,” Durkan said.

Whether voters will be satisfied by those measures is another matter. The mayor may want to talk about numbers, said Dean Nielsen, a political consultant. But most people won’t listen, he said.

“How people feel about this issue is directly related to what they see,” said Nielsen, who’s working with several council candidates this year. “Homelessness is not an issue where you can put out a report and say, ‘We’ve had a decrease,’ if that doesn’t match up with what voters see.”

Staff reporter Vianna Davila contributed to this report.