About a week ago, the city cleared an encampment near the Ballard Locks that has been the subject of countless complaints in the past few months, despite the fact that it’s easy to overlook if you aren’t specifically looking for it. The camp has been stubbornly persistent over the past year or so, and when I visited several months ago, about a dozen people were living there, spread out in tents across a few hundred square feet of brushy land elevated above the street and tucked behind some trees.
Currently, complaining constantly to the city is one (unofficial, but effective) way to get them to come out and force people to move along; a proposed update to those rules aims to provide clearer guidance on which encampments are prioritized for removal, what kind of notice the city must provide, and how the city decides which items to save and store and which ones to throw away.
A story in the Ballard News Tribune reported that 12 “campers” had been “relocated” after the recent sweep, and “all campers were provided alternative shelter locations.” This struck me as highly unlikely, given that the reason people tend to live outside is because the only available shelter beds are at places that require them to relinquish or risk their possessions, sleep on the floor next to hundreds of other people, split up with their partners and abandon their pets, or submit to Christian programming including mandatory church attendance. Many require guests to be sober, too—a tough standard for many to meet, given that addiction is a physical disease.
So here’s what actually happened to those 12 or so individuals, according to Chloe Gale. Gale is the program director for REACH, the organization that provides outreach and offers services during encampment sweeps. REACH has been working with encampment residents “for about a year,” Gale says, “trying to figure out good solutions for the folks who were living there.”
One man got connected to a case manager and is being assessed for housing. (Gale said he didn’t want to go to the nearby Nickelsville encampment because the last time he was there, someone stole his bike.) One man received a special Section 8 voucher set aside for people with disabilities, and is moving to his new apartment in March. Two got their names put on the list for this year’s Section 8 voucher lottery, which will distribute vouchers to 3,500 people over the next two or three years. (The last time the Seattle Housing Authority held a lottery, 19,000 people signed up for a chance to win 2,500 vouchers.) One went back to sleeping on a friend’s couch. One got a bed at Peter’s Place, a shelter that allows people to store their stuff during the day and to have their own bed and sheets, rather than having to line up for a bed each night. And a couple told REACH they had bought a van, which they are now going to live in (and, if they’re lucky, lay low enough not to set off a new round of neighbor complaints.)
The rest of the encampment residents went off to set up camp somewhere else, declining REACH’s offer of shelter elsewhere. Gale says that’s understandable. “Generally, the beds we can offer are in shelters that many people don’t want to go to, like the shelters downtown where people may have to line up to get a bed, so they may not have a guarantee,” Gale says. “Often, these are shelters with mats on the floor. For someone in Ballard to come downtown to city hall to sleep on the floor might not make a whole lot of sense.”
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