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

Right before Mayor Bruce Harrell took office last month, city employees cleared some of the largest encampments Seattle has seen in years, managing to get hundreds of homeless people into shelter, Harrell pointed out in his first State of the City address Tuesday.

“However, no one who looks around our city today would say our work is anywhere near complete,” Harrell said. “We can help people living unsheltered and we can restore parks and make sidewalks accessible for all.”

A month into his term, Harrell and his administration have largely returned to a status quo set before the COVID-19 pandemic by previous mayors — but they’re hoping that with more shelter, housing and communication, their efforts will be more successful.

As Seattle’s annual homelessness counts have risen — reaching third-highest in the nation — the city’s last several mayors have struggled with how to handle encampments.

While a University of Oxford researcher recently found that bigger encampments in Seattle didn’t correlate with a rise in crime, business leaders tend to associate them with street disorder. Commuters and wheelchair users often complain when tents block sidewalks. Even homeless people often say the bigger a camp grows, the less safe it can feel.

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But mayors’ efforts to clear encampments have almost never been successful long-term: Campers usually return in a few years or even months, or move into new neighborhoods, and the people who go from encampments to shelter often end up back on the street rather than in housing.

Harrell ran last year on a platform that called for action on encampments: The city would open thousands of units of shelter and housing, but also keep parks and sidewalks clear.

But he wasn’t particularly specific on whether he would force encampments out of public spaces without offers of shelter, or without much notice, as past mayors have.

Harrell opened the year with a flurry of small camp clearings in January. But he’s held off on a big one in Woodland Park while outreach workers try to get people into shelter and housing there. 

His deputy mayor in charge of homelessness, Tiffany Washington, characterized the approach on Monday as continuing a status quo from last year, but with more resources and more transparency with the public.

“We are not changing any policies,” said Washington, who has worked in the last three mayoral administrations. “There’s no lightbulb we’re turning on, other than the fact that, because of where we are in this pandemic cycle and because of the fact that things are going to be better — knock on wood — we can return to the business of keeping the right-of-ways clear.”

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Some homeless advocates, like Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness, aren’t overly optimistic.

“There isn’t currently enough individual housing or shelter to do what some people want, which is not to have to see human suffering in public,” Eisinger said. “If you don’t want people to be homeless in downtown streets, there is no magic wand. There is hard work and we should do it.”

Did the sweeps ever stop?

Clearing a homeless encampment is not only tough for the people in the encampment and the ones removing it. It’s also tricky politically. The mayor doesn’t have enough resources to constantly clear small encampments that dot the city; one survey done in 2020 found over 120 clusters of between two and 10 tents.

But if an encampment gets big enough, it becomes a new kind of challenge. If there aren’t enough shelter spots for everyone when the encampment is removed, the city risks running afoul of court decisions that dictate local governments can’t punish someone for staying in a tent if there’s nowhere else for them to stay in the city.

Since at least former Mayor Ed Murray’s administration, city officials have insisted that they don’t do homeless “sweeps,” a practice the ACLU of Washington describes as “the forced disbanding of homeless encampments on public property and the removal of both homeless individuals and their property from that area.” Instead, outreach workers offer shelter beds to people and city workers hang on to their belongings so they can come retrieve them.

But activists in the “Stop the Sweeps” campaign still treated city actions under Murray and his successor, Jenny Durkan, as sweeps. They were still technically forced, and a Seattle Times investigation found that when belongings were removed from encampments, many homeless people lost their IDs, medical devices and medications. Data from early 2020 showed most people didn’t want to go to a shelter, or if they did, they never actually got into a bed.

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Then, COVID-19 hit and the Centers for Disease Control recommended cities stop almost all encampment removals to contain the coronavirus’ spread.

“We were all grounded for two years,” said Washington. She sees keeping sidewalks and right-of-ways clear as a “fundamental job of local government,” but the city had to balance that with the fact that people weren’t walking in the urban core like they used to. “We chose to be very lenient because there weren’t a lot of people coming downtown.”

In this void, advocates in the city council, Public Defender Association and local homeless outreach providers pushed for a bigger focus on getting campers into shelter, rather than getting them out of an encampment. New money from the federal and county government helped fund hundreds of hotel rooms and shelter beds to put these displaced campers in.

Durkan agreed to hold the timeline back on clearing large encampments at City Hall Park, Ballard Commons, Bitter Lake and many others, while outreach workers went in for weeks to try and get homeless people inside. 

It’s unclear whether this approach has long-term success yet: Most people who leave a shelter go back to the street or unknown destinations, not housing. One encampment under I-5 removed using this method in 2020 saw more than a third leave the hotels by August 2021, likely back to the street, and more than a quarter couldn’t be accounted for.

The encampment clearings began to ramp back up toward the end of Durkan’s term. In 2021, Durkan completed around 70 removals, according to a spokesperson for the city parks department. In January, Harrell’s staff removed 11 encampments, from Westlake Park to Miller Playfield, and most didn’t result in anybody going into shelter. A city spokesperson said the removals were either “obstructions,” where camps were blocking a right of way, or a camper had moved into a place that had been cleared previously.

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Some advocates of the pandemic-era approach are hoping Harrell’s plans will be more humane and effective than previous mayors’. Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents downtown, has begun speaking with Washington and other leaders about a “mitigation” strategy — making camping legal in some areas of the city or a few sites.

“If we’re pivoting back to pre-COVID removals, I guess my response is this — homeless people are like any people. They respond to incentives and they will follow the rules if the rules are made clear,” Lewis said. “Where can you camp?”

It’s possible Harrell’s efforts will end up being much tougher than the City Council or homeless advocates were hoping for, said Nick Licata, a former council member who served for years with Harrell on the council.

But it may not be too tough for the people of Seattle who elected Harrell.

“[Harrell’s administration is] caught in a bind, basically. They want to see something done that is effective, that will get people into homes. They also believe that the majority of people in Seattle have run out of patience,” Licata said. “I think they’re going to take harder steps than the majority of council will like and I think they believe that they’ve got a substantial portion of the electorate who will tolerate some measures which are going to be seen as tough, but clearly doing something.”