The city has removed more homeless encampments this year than in all of 2017, with a sharp increase in the cleanup of camps without prior notice to residents.

Share story

In past fights over the removal of homeless encampments, Seattle officials have stressed the outreach that occurs in the camps before they’re emptied and cleared. Residents are given 72 hours’ notice, the city says, and all camp residents are offered spots in shelters or tiny-house villages.

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

· Find out more about Project Homeless  

But, increasingly, that’s not the case.

The city has already removed more homeless encampments this year than it did in all of 2017: 220 sites have been cleared between the start of 2018 and the end of July, compared to 191 camps last year.

Of those cleanups, the biggest increase has been in the number of encampments that have been cleared immediately and without notice. The city removed 89 encampments since the beginning of 2018 without having to provide 72-hour notice or offers of shelter to the camp residents, a dramatic uptick compared to the previous year, according to information the city released Tuesday. That’s about 40 percent of the removals this year.

Last year, about one-quarter of the camps in Seattle — 49 sites — were cleared without notice.

Technically, the city didn’t have to provide advance notice and extra help in these cases. The city policy that details when and how encampments can be removed allows the city to immediately clear sites that are considered obstructions to public use of property, hazards to health or safety, or are located in one of the city’s emphasis areas, where camping is prohibited.

These obstructions are often relatively small but not exclusively. At least one obstruction the city cleared, in May, had 22 tents in it, according to other data the city provided to The Seattle Times.

While these rules have been in place for more than a year, the data makes it clear that the city is now stepping up enforcement: the vast majority of the cleanups, of any kind, happened in June or July, the data showed.

There were 46 removals in June.

In July, 85 camps were removed.

The surge comes amid Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s focus on adding at least 500 more shelter spaces throughout the city, which also involves increasing Seattle’s supply of tiny house villages for homeless residents. She also recently announced a plan to expand the Navigation Team, the group of police officers and outreach workers who connect encampment residents to services.

The mayor has been under pressure since her election last fall to address the encampments.

That pressure was particularly pronounced in May and June, when City Council passed the so-called head tax, which would have assessed levies against the city’s highest-grossing businesses in order to fund more affordable housing and homeless services. The City Council repealed the tax June 12, after a public campaign to revoke the measure.

The mayor’s office did not directly respond to a request for comment about the increased cleanups Tuesday. But in a news release, the city wrote, “to better maintain public health and safety, the team has focused on removing smaller encampments, under the City’s protocols, which pose obstructions and/or hazards to ensure sidewalks, roadways, and public spaces remain safe and open for all residents, businesses and visitors to utilize.”

The rules that address these encampments “are designed to balance the right of people living unsheltered with the City’s responsibility to maintain public health and safety,” the release said.

The city also noted that the Navigation Team this year has made more than 7,000 contacts with people experiencing homelessness, referring 474 of them to shelter.

Last year, the team referred 675 people to shelter, the release said.

Last week, at a meeting of the City Council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development & Arts committee, Navigation Team leader Jackie St. Louis said it’s taking longer to persuade encampment residents to take shelter or accept services. Last year, on average, it took the team four interactions with residents before they accepted an offer to go inside; this year, St. Louis said, that’s increased to six interactions.

“A lot of that is really dependent on your capacity to refer to a place that the individual feels meets their needs,” St. Louis said.

There have also been questions about how the Navigation Team characterizes a successful referral into shelter, though St. Louis said in the same council committee meeting that the team is working on enhancing that data collection.

The city estimates there are 400 unauthorized encampments throughout the city.

Earlier this year, data released by the city revealed that spaces in the shelters and tiny-house villages that tend to appeal to encampment residents — those that don’t ban substance use, allow couples to live together and allow pets, for example — were full or weren’t turning over, resulting in a slowdown of removals of larger encampments.

But Will Lemke, spokesman for the city’s Navigation Team, said the city has enough shelter space to accommodate camp residents. A lack of shelter capacity is not related to the increase in removals.

“The city would not utilize the obstruction and hazard protocols as a way to circumvent our own rules that require shelter,” Lemke said. “There is capacity within the city’s shelter system.”

Police officers and field coordinators from the Navigation Team are present at obstruction and hazard cleanups. Outreach workers from the Navigation Team are not required to be there, but they can be called to the scene if a person wants more help. If someone living at the site wants shelter, the city will find a place, Lemke said.

Asked if the changes reflected a city being more aggressive on encampments, Lemke said the city has been responding to a crisis that has seen an annual increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness, coupled with residents who want to see the city doing more to address the issue.

“I believe the city is responding to the real challenges that we’re facing,” Lemke said.
Elisabeth James, co-chair of the Facebook group Speak Out Seattle, said she has no problem with the increase in cleanups if “that means more people are being offered shelter.”

“I think that is the goal of everyone,” said James, who lives in the Ballard area. “It’s not healthy to be out there.”

If people choose not to take it, she said, and they are living in a spot that’s posing a danger to themselves or others, off a highway ramp, for example, then James believes the police have to remove them.

“Or it’s just anarchy,” James said. “Anybody could set up anywhere for any reason.”

But Sara Rankin, of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University School of Law, called the city’s continued focus on encampment removals equivalent to flushing money down a toilet. Clearing camps does not address the underlying causes of homelessness nor helps people in a substantial way, Rankin said.

Without more affordable housing in the city, she said, the problem will never end.

“It’s moving people around to create the illusion that homelessness has been fixed when it hasn’t,” she said.

This story has been updated.