When a homeless encampment was cleared, no one went to a shelter. The reasons are complicated

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Eric Jordan shares his experience of being cleared from an encampment and his reasons for declining to go to a shelter. He is now at a different encampment with others near Rainier Avenue in Seattle. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Eric Jordan was given a choice.

Before city and state crews in mid-July cleared the encampment he lived in near a viewpoint overlooking Interstate 90, an outreach worker offered to refer him to a homeless shelter. Just up the hill, two spots were open at the Navigation Center. They could provide transport to help him get there. 

But to Jordan, it didn’t feel like a choice at all. 

“I would never,” he said two weeks later, outside the Rainier Avenue encampment a few blocks away that he moved to. “The shelter system here is atrocious.”

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Jordan wasn’t alone. No one in the camp that day ended up going to a homeless shelter.

As debate continues about how best to respond to growing homeless encampments across Seattle, the city’s outreach services are reporting struggles connecting people to homeless shelters and persuading them to go. 

It’s hard to put an exact figure on how many people refuse offers of shelter — the city only tracks refusals and successful referrals to shelter at a few priority locations, and doesn’t include cases like Jordan’s where an encampment was cleared on short notice without an extended period of outreach. Over the last two weeks of July, 84 people were offered shelter at seven encampments the city conducted outreach at, and 41 accepted.

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Referrals this year have increased to record highs, city spokesperson Will Lemke said. But even after people accept a referral, only around half of them end up enrolling in shelter. Still, that’s the highest success rate the city’s had in two years. Before the pandemic, it was even lower, hovering between 20% and 30% in 2019. Lemke said the enrollment figures are likely an undercount because some anonymized enrollments can’t be tracked. 

Reluctance to go to crowded shelters is just one of many reasons people turn down the offer. Some people have been turned away by bad experiences and broken promises. Others have specific circumstances — addiction, immigration status, or families and pets — that shelters can’t accommodate.

Each one illustrates how the options available during Seattle’s homeless encampment enforcement can lack the flexibility and security to support a large proportion of the homeless people in the city, prompting them to stay outside.

This year, only 5% of referrals were to so-called basic shelters, the crowded open-room facilities that experience the most turnover and are often the option offered to people on short notice. 

Jordan has carried a suspicion of homeless shelters in Seattle since 2008, when he claims a staff member at one stole his wallet. He’s wary of the Navigation Center, where he was offered a spot in July. It’s one of the few shelters that accepts drug users who would otherwise be on the street, but that can dissuade other people offered spots there. Jordan doesn’t want to live around drug use. Alicia Wade, a friend of Jordan’s who lives in her car near the encampment, agreed.

“The Navigation Center enables me,” Wade said. “If I’m around addicts, and I want to be clean, I’m going to relapse.”

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Eric Jordan hugs a friend at a small encampment he shares with others near Rainier Avenue. Jordan doesn’t like homeless shelters and declined to move to one when the encampment he lived at previously was cleared. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

There’s another reason Jordan refused referral to a homeless shelter. When he was forced to leave the I-90 encampment, he moved with several of the other people staying there. They’ve lived together for years, they said, and none of them wanted to take separate referrals to shelter spaces across the city. Jordan’s neighbor, Lisa, suffers from schizophrenia, and Jordan buys her food and clothes.

“We’re like a family,” he said. “We depend on each other.”

Yvonne Nelson, the outreach worker who offered Jordan and his friends shelter, doesn’t blame them for their reluctance. Sometimes all Nelson can do is offer whatever shelter space happens to be available on the day. The abrupt timeline of the I-90 encampment clearing, which was announced only two days beforehand, didn’t give her the time to find accommodations that better fit the encampment’s needs. 

“If I build relationships with those folks, [I can] get to know them a little more intimately and find out what it is that they actually want,” Nelson said. “Coming down a day or two before they’re supposed to move and offering them shelter is just, it’s cruel.”

That might sound strange when the alternative is staying on the streets. But for many homeless people that Nelson has worked with, taking the first spot available in a group shelter can be dangerous and traumatizing. Mitch Mitchell, an outreach worker with the Hepatitis Education Project, said basic shelters are especially dangerous for women and LGBTQ people.

“Perhaps there may have been an incident where someone was sexually harassed or assaulted or beat up,” Mitchell said. “Oftentimes, [with the] staff response to those incidents, the survivor, or the victim, feels like that response was not enough to continue to feel safe at a shelter.”

Those shelters are chronically understaffed and their workers paid little for how taxing their work is. Both Nelson and Mitchell worked in shelters before switching to outreach work. Nelson said the stress and low pay leads to high turnover among shelter staff, which in turn leaves few staff with the experience needed to resolve conflicts and emergencies. And if someone doesn’t thrive in a shelter, they’re often back where they started.

“It’s easier for shelter staff to bar somebody and kick them out versus to work around the situation,” Nelson said.

Certainly, shelters — even the ones that only offer a mat on the floor — work for many people who want to stay out of the elements or find a safe place to sleep for the night.

Nicole Macri, a deputy director at Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center, said that after the center closed its large-scale, open-room shelter at the Morrison Hotel last year due to COVID-19 concerns and moved residents to individual motel rooms, they noticed greatly improved outcomes at the motel shelters and emergency housing they operated instead.

“[We saw] a greater sense of well-being, more engagement and motivation to take steps to improve their lives [and] reduce substance use,” she said.

One advantage of large-scale shelters is that they’re able to accept people on short notice, if they want to come. Macri said that the center is working on developing centers that can still serve as an immediate refuge for people in need without the crowding and safety concerns of congregate shelters.

“We need something that has the benefit of, ‘Come as you are,’ just show up,” she said. “Without the negative [of] hundreds of people all in a single space.”

The city of Seattle has seen much more success referring people to shelters that offer private space to individuals, like motel rooms and tiny houses. Over 90% of the referrals made by city outreach services in 2021, when enrollment rates were at their highest, were to these “enhanced” shelters and tiny house villages. Both options are open 24/7 and offer help connecting to social services. People stay longer, too. The average length of stay at enhanced shelters and tiny houses in 2020 was 102 and 349 days, respectively, compared to 68 days at basic shelters. 

Scott Lindsay, who served as public safety adviser to the mayor between 2014 and 2017, said that success rates for shelter referrals were even lower when he started his position — in the “low single digits.”

He suggested that the greater availability of shelter options with private space was partly why the rates have risen, but also argued that clearing encampments would increase the rate at which people accept shelter spaces.

“My view was that you had to provide the enhanced, improved options, combined with the firmer hand of saying, ‘No, you cannot continue to live in this other place,'” he said.

Jordan, though, said he’s never been offered a hotel room or a tiny house. He said he’d take one if offered, as long as he could move with the rest of the friends he’s caring for. But after being left alone for years at the I-90 encampment — and then being abruptly cleared from the site because of rock throwers he claims were not connected to their camp — Jordan finds it hard to trust offers of help from the city. 

That might be the toughest barrier to break. Even as Seattle and King County funnel more money and legislation toward creating shelters with private spaces for residents, there could be years of mistrust and cynicism to repair before some people will use them.

Jordan says he doesn’t want to stay on the streets. He wants to teach people fishing and start a podcast called “Choppin’ Up the Wood.” If he had his own roof over his head — whether that was a tiny home or a motel room — he thinks he could.