Two North Seattle homeless encampments that have been the focus of controversy over the last year are being cleared this week after months of getting scores of residents into newly opened hotels and shelters. 

The Ballard Commons and Bitter Lake removals are part of a new approach the city and its nonprofit contractors are trying — instead of posting notices for residents of large encampments saying they must disperse in days, outreach workers try to move them inside, leveraging new pandemic investments in shelter and housing.

Ballard Commons, which was cleared Tuesday by Seattle Parks and Recreation, was also cleared in 2019 and 2020, and each time homeless campers have returned. The Bitter Lake encampment, which is situated in between a playfield and a school playground, has been around for more than a year. 

Over the last three months, 42 people left the Ballard Commons encampment to new tiny house villages, 18 to shelters, and six to housing. Eleven people remained in the camp Tuesday morning when cleanup crews arrived and were forced to leave. 

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

“The encampment removal lasted two-and-a-half months rather than two-and-a-half days,” said Dan Strauss, Ballard’s City Council member. “And the difference there means that people are being moved inside and trust is built and relationships are built, rather than displacement policies that create friction and animosity.”

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At Bitter Lake, six people remain after 36 referrals since September — including to a former Aurora Avenue Holiday Inn-turned-shelter and a newly opened tiny house village, both in the neighborhood. A city spokesperson said the rest should be referred to shelter within the next couple days. It is unclear when that area will be closed off.

Both camps, which have had more than 60 people each in them at one time by many reports over the last year, have been the subject of ire from surrounding neighborhoods that complain of an increase in crime and trash. According to publicly available Seattle Police Department crime dashboards, neither surrounding area has seen a significant increase in crime rates this year.

It remains to be seen if the effort will work long-term. Seattle’s shelters — even some of the hotel programs — are notoriously leaky, sending uncounted numbers of people back to the streets. And the voucher programs leadership hope will get people out of shelters long-term are clunky or often don’t lead to move-ins.

But this time will be different, city leaders say.

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A ferry passes the Seattle skyline during sunset on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021.  218504

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As of Tuesday, Ballard Commons is fenced off from the public, while parks and recreation crews repair damage to the park and take this opportunity to address some “backlogged maintenance” like rodent control, replacing damaged vegetation, maintaining the spray park, restrooms, irrigation and turf. It is expected to be closed for at least six months.

“Any new tents that are set up at Ballard Commons will be asked to leave,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email.

While this slow-moving approach was developed between nonprofits, city council members, business groups and advocates who had the ear of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration in the last year, it’s unclear if incoming Mayor Bruce Harrell — who won the election handily on a platform centered on keeping parks clear of encampments — will keep the approach or scrap it.

“I think that we’ve developed a model and an approach that works and it’s our hope that the incoming administration will take a look at that and really consider the hard work that was done,” said Mike Stewart, executive director of the Ballard Alliance, a group of Ballard businesses.