By Erica C. Barnett
One of the most consistent characteristics of the Durkan Administration has been their tendency to put out numbers that present a positive story, no matter what external reality they reflect. In Durkan’s world, the trend is always positive; the arrow of good news points eternally up and to the right.
For example: When the COVID pandemic forced shelter providers to provide more sleeping space for clients, Durkan claimed the city had created “1,900 new temporary housing options” for people experiencing homelessness—even though all but 95 of those were either existing shelter beds that had been relocated or spots at COVID isolation and quarantine sites for the general public.
When the mayor claimed in her state of the city address that the city had moved 7,400 households into permanent housing, PubliCola reported that that number reflected those who remained in permanent housing plus the number of exits from individual programs, forcing Durkan’s Human Services Department to walk back that claim.
And PubliCola readers will recall the many revisions the mayor’s office has made to the number of public restrooms the city claims are open for people experiencing homelessness—revisions that, as I’ve documented, have included the addition of many portable toilets that lack handwashing facilities to the list of “open restrooms,” improving the numbers.
The latest good-news story from the mayor’s office is about the Clean City Initiative, a $3 million “surge” in trash and graffiti removal in public spaces, with a particular focus on encampments and locations where unsheltered people sleep outdoors, such as greenbelts and doorways.
Consider a counterfactual: The city launches a massive campaign to expand the trash pickup at homeless encampments so that people living unsheltered actually have an opportunity to legally dispose of their trash—much as housed people do
The mayor’s office has quantified progress for the initiatives in terms of pounds of trash collected, among other metrics; every week, Seattle residents can visit a “dashboard” where the city reports its week-to-week improvements—millions of pounds of trash removed, thousands of needles collected, thousands of square feet of graffiti power-washed away.
These numbers are out of context and misleading, because they tell a fraction of the story. But they also contribute to a politically noxious narrative that feeds into the dehumanization of unhoused people. For years, the Seattle Is Dying crowd has been framing homeless people, rather than homelessness itself, as the problem. Durkan’s emphasis on the physical detritus produced by people who lack safe places to sleep capitulates to this agenda by focusing on the symptom—litter—rather than the cause.
The Clean City program started earlier this year, but the city’s executive departments have ramped up their promotional campaign in recent weeks, via press releases, Instagram posts, and dozens of tweets featuring “before” and “after” site photos.
As a journalist, I live on Twitter, which is where I started noticing the trend this month. Here’s a tweet from the city’s Parks Department, showing workers with shovels standing inside a Pioneer Square fountain usually surrounded by people, some of them homeless, and filled with litter. In the image, the fountain has been temporarily cleansed of both trash and people.
Clean City program funds have enabled business associations & business districts to increase their clean-up efforts, address graffiti, & continue to keep store- and street-fronts welcoming as we reopen and revitalize our economy. #SeattleCleanCityhttps://t.co/gQA8KO7uWc pic.twitter.com/j7MFwMz8jJ
— Seattle Parks (@SeattleParks) March 23, 2021
Another tweet, also from Parks, shows before and after shots outside an unidentified building. The text reads: “The Clean City Initiative includes the Purple Bag program, trash pickup serving the unhoused. From Feb. 15-21, crews collected 71 purple bags from encampments. Added to other cleanup results, the week’s totals came to 142,575 lbs of trash & 6,605 needles.”
The photo does not show an encampment, any visible needles, or purple bags, but the implication is clear: This trash was produced by homeless people who failed to clean up after themselves; fortunately, the city came along to pick up after them.
The Clean City Initiative includes the Purple Bag program, trash pickup serving the unhoused. From Feb. 15-21, crews collected 71 purple bags from encampments. Added to other cleanup results, the week’s totals came to 142,575 lbs of trash & 6,605 needles.https://t.co/K7jVH7mL8Y pic.twitter.com/0pQVd9hS2b
— Seattle Parks (@SeattleParks) March 4, 2021
What the mayor’s (and her departments’) obsession with numbers and before-and-after photos reflects, even if unintentionally, is less a story of constant improvement than one of ideology. By pushing the narrative that the city is altruistically cleaning up after people who can’t, or refuse to, clean up after themselves, the mayor’s office and her executive departments are contributing to the widespread, mainstream, and increasingly popular narrative that homeless people and the encampments where they live are themselves a blight that needs to be “cleaned up” or eradicated—by force if necessary.
Consider a counterfactual: The city launches a massive campaign to expand the trash pickup at homeless encampments so that people living unsheltered actually have an opportunity to legally dispose of their trash—much as housed people do. As part of the campaign, city departments put encampment trash in context, explaining that the tonnage homeless residents produce amounts to a fraction of what housed Seattle Public Utilities customers produce. Meanwhile, it begins a highly publicized crackdown on illegal dumping, fining people heavily for each couch or refrigerator or pile of construction debris they leave in the public right-of-way. They could even charge by the pound!
The point, in other words, isn’t that people should dump their trash illegally (a major problem near encampments, as I’ve documented) or that the city shouldn’t pick up litter in places where litter is a problem. It’s that the city should spend less time promoting the latest mayoral initiative to “clean up” Seattle and more creating systems that would make a “clean city” possible to achieve without performative trash pickups.
One last tweet, this one touting “good progress” on graffiti cleanup:
Graffiti removal is one task among many for the big clean-up occurring throughout Seattle as part of the Clean City Initiative. The pandemic's staffing & other challenges have created quite a backlog, but crews are making good progress. #SeattleCleanCityhttps://t.co/H32rFvRtAe pic.twitter.com/1zts4cLH5J
— Seattle Parks (@SeattleParks) March 26, 2021
The photo shows another “before” and “after” scene—a restroom wall where workers have removed graffiti with a pressure washer. What you may not be able to see from the photo is that the restroom is locked and inaccessible. What you definitely won’t see is what the graffiti said: “Locked bathrooms kill homeless people” and “How dare u lock this, [people] live here.” The graffiti has been removed; the locks have not.