As the city’s encampment outreach and cleanup team has expanded its work to seven days a week under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the results have won praise from business owners and neighbors who have seen city blocks once clogged with encampments become tent free.   

Between January and the end of October last year, the city removed 745 encampments, most of them with little notice, compared to 468 removed during all of 2018. 

But scaling up those cleanups may come at a cost, homeless outreach workers say. They are concerned that, over the last year, the cleanups have increasingly resulted in people losing their medication, medical devices and IDs. 

Losing these items in cleanups can work counter to the city’s mission to get more people inside. Lack of an ID and lost medication can be hurdles to finding housing or could make people resort to desperate survival measures outside. And unlike other West Coast cities, Seattle hasn’t funded a storage facility accessible to the public where people can show up to store their things.

City logs show that from January 2019 to late November, field coordinators for the city’s Navigation Team, the police officers and outreach workers tasked with cleaning encampments, stored homeless people’s belongings in 343 instances, but only 30 deliveries were made to return belongings.

The same data show that city workers collected medication and medical devices at least 13 times in 2019, including antibiotics, EpiPens and canes. Wallets, IDs and paperwork were logged 32 times. 

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The data the city provided The Seattle Times did not show whether those medical items were brought back to their owners.

And even the data the city did provide to The Seattle Times is incomplete. The city said its 2018 data hasn’t been verified, so there’s no baseline with which to compare last year’s numbers.  

It took the city more than a month to turn over its storage and delivery data to The Seattle Times, citing issues with data quality and that they required additional time for city staff, including the mayor’s office, to review the response.

At least one outreach worker says people’s medications are taken in cleanups even more frequently than what the data show.  

“It happens all the time, one out of every five or six sweeps,” said Paige Killinger, a case manager for REACH, the city’s contracted outreach team that works alongside the Navigation Team.   

Killinger said she herself has had to intervene in one of these cleanups to retrieve a client’s wallet and medication. Once the medication is confiscated, Killinger said, it can become a nightmare to get a prescription refilled – particularly if it’s medication to manage pain or addiction.   

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Oftentimes, doctors say they won’t refill a prescription until another visit or the following month, Killinger said. By that point, a person’s symptoms may have become overwhelming — or they may have started using street drugs to cope.

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

In response to Killinger, the city said in a statement that it “urges REACH to share the data this claim is based on for further comment and consideration,” adding, “every effort is made to collect and store labeled medications and other prescriptive items” according to city rules.

But other West Coast cities have scaled up public storage systems for people who are homeless, giving them far more options than Seattle has.

Seattle’s storage system

George Buckingham said he didn’t expect his “leg” to be taken from his tent while he went to shower and do laundry at a shelter in Pioneer Square.  

But when Buckingham received a panicked call from a friend who stayed at his campsite near Jose Rizal Park, he knew to come back right away. He said he found his things piled in the back of a city trailer. Included, he contends, was a custom-made medical device that stabilized his walking and reduced pain due to disc damage from multiple accidents that deadened his left foot.   

A city worker wouldn’t let him take the items back, Buckingham said, but gave him a number to call.   

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“I lost my medical device, my cane, everything,” said Buckingham, a wiry 54-year-old who spent more than two decades breaking horses for the racetrack. 

After Buckingham called the number, he was told his device couldn’t be found. Dealing with increasing pain in his leg and his back from his degenerative spine disease, he started using heroin to self-medicate.  

Seattle holds onto all items it collects for 70 days in Sodo storage units before disposing of them, according to Human Services Department spokesperson Will Lemkethough it will extend that time for people who have contacted the Navigation Team or if people are in the hospital or in an inpatient facility. It doesn’t store prescription drugs, IDs or medical devices separately from other items. 

The city usually cannot store anything wet or dirty that runs the risk of growing mold.   

Deciding what to throw away comes down to individual field coordinators’ discretion, as does whether they will allow someone to grab their things already loaded onto a city vehicle, field coordinator Sili Kalepo said. Oftentimes he’ll work with people if the item is clearly visible.  

Once the items are collected and logged, one employee monitors the line people can call to collect their things. City data show that the Navigation Team received 106 calls about property through November of 2019, though that number contained duplicates.   

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The city has acknowledged that its system for tracking people’s belongings could be upgraded.  

“Verifying and delivering items back out to individuals is a labor- and time-intensive activity that we believe can be improved to ensure better data analysis and outcomes,” Lemke, the city spokesperson, said in a statement.  

How do other cities handle storage?

Other West Coast cities have created public storage facilities in the wake of legal challenges over the way homeless people’s property is handled by cleanup teams and enforcement.

As the result of a 2012 legal settlement between Portland and homeless campers, the city created a property-storage warehouse so people could collect belongings taken during cleanups. It kept property for 30 days, and people needed to make appointments to collect their things. But few people were retrieving their belongings; an audit noted that there weren’t well-documented procedures on how the city stored IDs, prescription medication and credit cards.   

Field coordinator Sili Kalepo at the storage facility the city of Seattle uses to store homeless people’s belongings.    (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Field coordinator Sili Kalepo at the storage facility the city of Seattle uses to store homeless people’s belongings. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

That process changed significantly after Portland officials decided to move to a bigger, more central location. Now, the city rents a 5,500-square-foot space near light rail. Four full-time employees oversee the facility and help people find their property.  

“We have made tremendous improvements to the retrieval process and now see four to six people pick up their belongings each day, as opposed to the one to two per week last year,” said Portland city spokesperson Heather Hafer.  

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Portland launched a separate program in 2016 that allows people to store their things during the day in storage containers provided by the city. About 60 people use the program per day, Hafer said, and 90% collect their things at night. The sites host portable toilets, dumpsters and sharps containers.   

San Diego opened its first public-storage facility for its homeless population after a 2011 class action settlement over seizing homeless people’s property. Now the city funds three facilities that employ outreach workers to get people into housing and that can store 1,400 sets of belongings in lockable units.  

Los Angeles has three public-storage facilities that collectively hold more than 2,500 bins for homeless people to use. It also has five nonpublic sites that hold items taken in cleanups and stores them for 90 days. The city of Pomona also started funding a public-storage facility after a 2016 class action settlement with homeless plaintiffs.

Outsiders: A podcast from Project Homeless and KNKX

KNKX Public Radio and The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless spent one year in Washington state’s capital, reporting on how that city grappled with homelessness. New episodes drop every Wednesday.

Hear more about what we learned from Olympia’s experience by subscribing to our new podcast “Outsiders.”
KNKX Public Radio and The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless spent one year in Washington state’s capital, reporting on how that city grappled with homelessness. New episodes drop every Wednesday. Hear more about what we learned from Olympia’s experience by subscribing to our new podcast “Outsiders.”

Seattle has also faced at least two lawsuits over the storage of homeless people’s items that are pending in court. But the city has no equivalent publically accessible storage program, though some emergency shelters offer storage, and local homeless activist group SHARE operates a locker storage program.

Seattle allows people to “self-store” their belongings at the same site where field coordinators place items collected from cleanups but they can’t just show up there. They, like people whose items have been taken during cleanups, are given a number to call to schedule delivery of their possessions. 

Field coordinators noted that people chose to store their things 39 times between January and late November of 2019.

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Outcomes

Buckingham, who now speaks with a slight Southern twang despite his Redmond upbringing, said he “snapped a leg” on a bad horse in 2016.  

That accident, plus 25 years of other nasty accidents breaking horses in the South, put him through multiple back surgeries before he wasn’t able to work and ended up homeless. He was able to find housing through the state’s Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) program in 2018, but he lost it after nine months because he qualified for federal disability.   

Buckingham ended up surviving on the streets, in chronic pain and with depression and anxiety. A few things kept him relatively stable: his emotional support dog, Trigger; his cane; and a medical device molded to the shape of his leg that helped him walk and eased the shooting pains up and down his leg and in his foot.  

George Buckingham shows the damage to his leg that causes him to need a cane and a supportive device for his leg. The prosthetic supports his leg so he can walk without falling.     (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
George Buckingham shows the damage to his leg that causes him to need a cane and a supportive device for his leg. The prosthetic supports his leg so he can walk without falling. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

It was Seattle, Buckingham says, that took two of those last supports away.   

“The city says they’re helping us — they’re not helping us, they just took our whole life from us,” Buckingham said. 

Outreach workers also say that when people lose their belongings in encampment sweeps, it takes time and money to replace them — taking away resources they could instead be using to get people into housing.  

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Yvonne Nelson, REACH’s liaison between the Navigation Team and REACH outreach workers, recently brought up with the city the fact that the process for retrieving belongings had challenges, like when the voicemail is full or a call back from the city takes too long. Few of her clients have consistent access to a phone.

“[The city] just said they would work on the process,” Nelson said. “They weren’t specific about it.” 

The city rejected Nelson’s characterization of its property-delivery system. Calls are “answered in a timely manner,” the city said in a statement, and “if a voice mailbox is full, the queue is cleared as calls are returned.” People are also able to text the phone number. 

Data provided by the city showed that the Navigation Team had a range of response times for returning items, from within the same day to 32 days. The average delivery response, based on data available, was four days, and most items were returned within two days.

The city said medical devices are stored during encampment removals, but noted that it found no item corresponding to Buckingham’s call to the Navigation Team. The city “makes every effort to return any item requested at the location when collection and storage takes place,” it said in a statement.

In January, Buckingham was hospitalized for back pain and discovered damage to another section of his spine. He believes he’ll need another surgery, and is trying not to go back to using street drugs in the meantime. The pain is crippling.

He has now gone more than two months without his leg device.