Wayne Kirk woke up at 6:30 this morning and left the encampment across from City Hall where he’s been staying for the last month and a half. When he came back at 7 a.m., he saw notices posted saying work crews would come at 8 a.m. to force everyone out of the camp and remove trash and belongings.
He went to sleep and awoke an hour later to shouting: Police and cleanup crews from Seattle Parks and Recreation had arrived. A spokesperson for the city said notices were actually posted at 6 a.m.
City employees removed two blocks’ worth of tents and belongings Wednesday morning after those few hours’ notice — an unusual practice for an encampment with so many people. The city usually provides at least 48 hours’ notice. Over the last year, a long-term, unhurried approach had become more common — and supported broadly by City Council members and business associations — for larger encampments.
A spokesperson for Mayor Bruce Harrell said seven people were moved into shelters out of 16 total.
The clearing marked the end of a 2 ½ week standoff between the mayor and activists with the Stop the Sweeps campaign, who occupied the camp and stayed in shifts to keep homeless people from being moved.
It also comes as the city prepares to bring employees back into the office March 16 and downtown businesses set similar timelines. The increased focus on the commercial core of Seattle has come alongside plans to get people living downtown out of there.
“We appreciate the concerted effort of the city and county over the last several weeks to get chronically homeless people in downtown inside and connected to services,” the Downtown Seattle Association said in a statement. “As we work toward downtown’s recovery, it’s important to keep the busiest sidewalks in the city open and accessible to all.”
As Harrell has ramped up removals this year in a fulfillment of campaign promises to crack down on visible homeless encampments, Stop the Sweeps activists have shown up to help people move their tents and belongings.
Harrell won the election last year by a commanding margin with a promise to take decisive action to open thousands of new units of shelter and get rid of the encampments accumulating around the city.
But to the protesters, who angrily watched from behind police tape as the camp they’d tried to protect was removed Wednesday, the removal is a symbol that Harrell cares more about optics — particularly outside his office window — than helping people.
It is unclear whether activists will continue to stage long-term protests at large encampments as removals become more common.
The protest, the suddenness of the City Hall action, as well as the presence of police officers and a garbage truck, call back to a more contentious pre-pandemic approach to entrenched homeless camps.
“The site has been on the list for resolution for weeks,” Harrell’s spokesperson wrote in an email, but also said that per the city’s rules for removals, “tents, other structures and personal property left in the right of way are subject to immediate removal if they create an obstruction or present public health or safety risks that prevent pedestrians and vehicles from safely using the sidewalk or other rights of way,” so the speedy notice was justified.
The removal was originally scheduled for Feb. 20 and notice was posted roughly 48 hours in advance, but when protesters showed up that morning, they decided to occupy the camp with the homeless residents and refuse to leave, one of the organizers, Jay Jones, said.
“We had talked with a few residents ahead of time who’d said, ‘I’m just not going to move,’ ” Jones said.
When that kept city employees from clearing the encampment, the activists started staying in shifts — for the first few nights, a few camped there, and then from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., Jones said.
Knowing they couldn’t hold it forever, the activists also tried to work with campers to get them into housing through their own channels. Jones said the activists got “more than five but less than 10” campers into housing in the last two weeks, and stressed that this removal is interrupting that work.
Kirk, who has a room at a low-income housing program but won’t stay there because it doesn’t allow his wife to stay with him, said the volunteers were helping him get a marriage license.
But the activists grew weary as the weeks drew on and they were spread thin by doing the same at other removals downtown. This week, they stayed only between 8 a.m. and noon. When they showed up Wednesday morning, police had beat them to the encampment.
Harrell has consistently talked about compassion and political unity, and his lieutenants have overseen a return to the status quo of speedy camp removals that homeless advocates decried.
The day before the removal, Harrell said in a press conference that the city was “not trying to strong-arm our way back to safety.”
“I want the city clean. I want it safe,” Harrell said. “I’m in here for the long game to rehabilitate Seattle. I’m here for the long game, and you don’t emphasize a strategy in the long game by creating chaos and anger in the city. This is one Seattle, and I ask those with perhaps intolerance of what you see, bear with me.”
But most voting Seattleites likely agree with Harrell’s approach. He beat challenger M. Lorena González, who agreed with calls to “stop the sweeps,” by one of the largest margins in a mayoral race since 1997.
City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, disagreed with Harrell’s use of police and the quick timeline of the removal, but said he is having productive conversations with the mayor’s office about opening more shelters soon and isn’t “yet” worried about the mayor’s direction.
“A sidewalk is not an appropriate place for someone to live, but people do need a place to go,” Lewis said. “I think everyone was offered shelter but it begs the age-old question of the suitability of shelter.”
Data from the county’s homeless management information system shows that more people leave shelters to go back to the streets or untracked destinations than to get into housing.
Councilmember Tammy Morales was more skeptical of the mayor’s move Wednesday, saying on Twitter that “sweeps are traumatic events that only accomplish pushing people from one street to another.”