By Erica C. Barnett
As summer approaches, the city has accelerated the pace of homeless encampment removals, which declined dramatically during the pandemic thanks in part to public health guidelines that cautioned against moving people from place to place.
But now that many people are vaccinated and students are returning to school, notices of impending encampment removals are starting to show up again in parks and other public spaces around the city. The Parks Department, which is in charge of removing most homeless encampments after the dissolution of the Navigation Team, will post notices like the one above at seven “high-priority” encampments this week. If people are still on site on the day of a posted removal, the department can remove their property, including tents and survival gear. The encampments are:
Madrona Park (Madrona)
Albert Davis Park (Lake City)
Second Ave. Extension (Pioneer Square)
Hubble Place/Convention Center (Downtown)
Amy Yee Tennis Center (Mt. Baker)
Broadway Hill Park (N. Capitol Hill)
8th and King St. (Pioneer Square)
The city refers to these sweeps as “MDAR removals,” a reference to the multi-department administrative rules that describe how and when the city can remove encampments. Generally, the city justifies such sweeps by saying an encampment is obstructing the use of a public space or poses a danger to its residents or the surrounding community. For example, the city recently removed a large encampment in Miller Park on Capitol Hill, arguing that the homeless residents posed a danger to middle-school children returning to school nearby and were preventing youth sports leagues from using using the park.
We have asked the Parks Department and Mayor Durkan’s office why they chose these specific encampments for removals and will update this post when we hear back.
When the city decides to “prioritize” an encampment for removal, the Human Services Department’s HOPE team notifies outreach workers who work to connect people living there to shelter and services. Two days before a sweep, city staffers post a sign announcing the time and date when everyone has to leave a location.
A persistent problem with this approach, going back to the days when the HOPE Team was known as the Navigation Team and included a large contingent of police, is that people often mistrust city government and don’t want to move into shelter, which is often a poor fit for people with complex mental health issues or those who simply prefer the privacy, autonomy, and community an encampment provides, however tenuously. Lately, the city has been referring some encampment residents to the Executive Pacific Hotel, where the Low-Income Housing Institute has 139 shelter rooms.
On the day of a removal, cleanup crews from the city’s Parks Department, who are not outreach workers, in remove any tents, trash, come through to remove any tents, trash, or possessions that remain. Nonprofit outreach workers and HOPE team members, according to Durkan spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, also show up to offer shelter referrals on the day encampments are removed; “for instance,” she said, “11 referrals to shelter were made at Gilman Playground last week, with transportation assistance also being provided.”
The city has canceled planned removals in the past when people have left encampments voluntarily, so there is no guarantee that any encampment on the list will be removed. One of the encampments on the latest list, Albert Davis Park, was recently the site of a double shooting; four have three tents or fewer by the city’s count.
Technically, the city is not supposed to sweep encampments (except when they decide one constitutes an “obstruction”) unless every person receives an offer of available shelter; however, many encampment residents are being put on “wait lists” for rooms at the Executive Pacific, which is only taking five new referrals each day.
The people prioritized for hotels are those the city considers most vulnerable to COVID—those who are older and have multiple underlying health conditions—while the people who are most successful in rapid rehousing tend to be younger, healthy, and recently or currently employed.
According to Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, 109 of the hotel’s 139 available rooms were occupied as of Monday with a total of 133 residents. At a rate of five new residents a day, the hotel will be full by early next week. Once that happens, new rooms will only open when people move out, and encampment referrals will be limited to the same sort of shelters that were available before the pandemic, including mass shelters like the Navigation Center.
The city has partnered with Catholic Community Services to move people from the Executive Pacific into market-rate housing through CCS’ rapid-rehousing program; however, this goal could be challenging. The people prioritized for hotels are those the city considers most vulnerable to COVID—those who are older and have multiple underlying health conditions—while the people who are most successful in rapid rehousing tend to be younger, healthy, and recently employed, rather than those who are sick, elderly, or chronically homeless. Rapid rehousing (RRH) programs provide temporary subsidies for market-rate units; most programs require tenants to pay an increasing percentage of their rent until they are paying the full amount, usually within a few months to a year.
According to Schulkin, “We don’t have data on identified RRH exits yet, but we anticipate additional spaces to open up as individuals exit to permanent housing through this program.”
Because of COVID, King County did not do its usual one-night count the county’s homeless population this year, but county leaders have consistently said (and anecdotal evidence suggests) that the county has more homeless residents than ever before. Even if the unsheltered population remained stable between 2019 and 2021, there are nowhere near enough shelters, much less housing units, to accommodate the thousands of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle in the city.