By Erica C. Barnett
Last week, sanitation crews and Parks Department employees showed up to remove the remains of a large, persistent encampment at the Ballard Commons park. From the outside, the removal looked exactly like every other encampment sweep: Tents, furniture, and household detritus disappeared into the back of garbage trucks as workers wandered around directing anyone still on site to leave. Hours later, crews installed a tall chain-link fence, identical to the ones that have become ubiquitous at former encampment sites around the city. Huge red “PARK CLOSED” signs emphasized the point: This park, once disputed territory, has been claimed. It will remain closed for at least six months for renovations, remediation, and, as District 6 City Councilmember Dan Strauss put it last week, “to allow the space to breathe.”
But the removal of the encampment at the Commons actually was different, because—for once, and contrary to what the city’s Human Services Department has always claimed is standard practice—nearly everyone at the encampment ended up moving to a shelter or housing, thanks to months of work by outreach providers and a hands-off approach from the city. At a press conference outside the Ballard branch library last week, Strauss heralded the results of the city’s “new way of doing encampment removals.”
While a humane approach like the one the city took at the Ballard Commons should serve as the baseline for how the city responds to encampments in the future, its success won’t be easy to replicate. That’s because there simply aren’t enough shelter beds, permanent housing units, or housing subsidies to accommodate all the residents of even one additional large encampment, much less the hundreds of encampments in which thousands of unsheltered people live across the city.
Before explaining why it would be premature, and potentially harmful, to praise the city for abandoning its “old” approach to encampments, it’s important to understand how the approach to this encampment really was different, and why it’s simplistic (and unhelpful) to refer to the removal of the encampment, and the closure of the park, as just another “sweep.”
Ordinarily, when the city decides to remove an encampment, the Human Services Department sends out an advance team, known as the HOPE Team, to offer shelter beds and services to the people living there and to let them know the encampment is about to be swept. The HOPE Team has exclusive access to some shelter beds, which makes it possible for the city to credibly claim it has “offered shelter” to everyone living at an encampment prior to a sweep. However, even the HOPE team is limited to whatever beds happen to be available, which tend to be in shelters with higher turnover and fewer amenities, like the Navigation Center in the International District. Mobility challenges, behavioral health conditions, and the desire to stay with a street community are some common reasons people “refuse” offers of shelter or leave shelter after “accepting” an offer. If someone needs a wheelchair ramp or a space they can share with their partner and those amenities are not available at the shelters that have open beds, the sweep will still go on.
At the Commons, in contrast, city outreach partners, including REACH and Catholic Community Services, spent months getting to know the 85 or so people living in the encampment, learning about their specific needs, and connecting them to resources that worked for them. More than 20 percent of the people living at the Commons had “significant medical issues” that many conventional shelters are not equipped to address, including Stage 4 cancer, emphysema, paralysis, and seizure disorders, REACH director Chloe Gale said last week. Eighty percent had serious behavioral health conditions, including addiction. One had been the victim of gender-based violence and did not feel safe going to shelter alone.
Eventually, outreach workers were able to find placements for nearly everyone living at the Commons, working with people on a one-on-one basis and building trust over months. The approach is time-consuming, costly, and resource-intensive—and it only works if there is sufficient shelter and housing available.
At last week’s press conference, Councilmember Strauss said that by “using a human-centered approach” the city is “giving [outreach providers] time for them to get get people inside, we’re finding and creating adequate shelter and housing. And [that approach] results in people getting inside rather than displaced.” On Monday, Strauss said during a council meeting that he had “begun working to bring a similar outcome to Lower Woodland Park,” where residents have been complaining about a large RV and tent encampment for months.
The problem—and a likely point of future friction for the city—is that the single biggest factor enabling this “human-centered approach” was the opening of dozens of new spots in tiny house villages and a Downtown Emergency Service Center-run hotel in North Seattle, which will provide permanent housing for dozens of people with severe and persistent behavioral health challenges. Those new resources, more than any outreach strategy or “new approach” by the city, enabled people to move, not from one park to another, but to places they actually wanted to go. Now that those shelter and housing slots are occupied, the city will revert to the status quo, at least until more shelter and housing becomes available.
The issue preventing the city from taking a person-by-person approach to encampments is only partly that Seattle fails to consider the individual needs of people living unsheltered; it’s also that the city has never taken seriously the need to fund and build shelter and housing that serves those needs on the level that will be necessary to make a visible dent in homelessness. This is changing, slowly—as Strauss noted last week, 2021 was the first year in which the city met its goal of spending $200 million a year on affordable housing—but the process of moving people inside will inevitably be slow and partial, especially if the city does not do significantly more to fund both shelter and housing.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data provided by the Human Services Department, the city has only added about 500 new shelter beds, and even that number is misleading, because it includes nearly 200 rooms in two temporary hotel-based shelters that will close down next month, sending providers scrambling to find placements for hundreds of people in the middle of winter.
Strauss acknowledged last week that the reason the city could declare the Ballard Commons a success story was that so many tiny house village units became available at once. “The reason that we were able to remove the encampment about our comments now over the last two and a half months is because the shelter availability has come online,” Strauss said.
A few hours later, at a meeting of the Ballard District Council, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones tried to inject a dose of realism into a conversation with homeowners who expressed frustration that they continue to see unhoused people in the area, including “one of the biggest car camping problems in the city.”
For example, one district council member asked, would the homelessness authority provide a person or team of people, along the lines of the Seattle Police Department’s community service officers, for Ballard residents to call when they see “someone repetitively harassing a business” or sleeping in their car?
Instead of offering meaningless reassurances, Dones responded that the job of the KCRHA is not to respond to individual neighborhood concerns about specific homeless people—nor would creating a special homeless-monitoring force for a neighborhood help anyway, in the absence of resources to help the people whose behavioral health conditions manifest as public nuisances. “For a lot of folks who have intense behavioral health needs, we don’t have any place for them to go. … It’s my job to not bullshit you on that,” Dones said.
What’s more, they added, sometimes the authority will outright reject community ideas that are bad. “The broad constituency here wants to solve this problem in a healthy and really compassionate way,” Dones said. “And that’s one of those places where if we’re telling people the honest truth about what can and can’t be done with what we have, it’s gonna go a lot further.”
Telling the truth about what works and what doesn’t seems like a simple thing. But it’s so contrary to the Seattle way of doing things that it’s almost shocking to hear an authority figure tell a traditional homeowners’ group that they can’t have what they want, and, moreover, that what they want won’t solve the problem they’ve identified.
Telling people what they want to hear is an ingrained political strategy, particularly when it comes to homelessness. When she first came into office, one-term Mayor Jenny Durkan promised she would build 1,000 new “tiny house” shelters in her first year in office. By the end of her term, only about 200 had opened. Her successor, mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, has similarly promised to add 2,000 new “emergency, supportive shelter” beds, using “existing local dollars” to fund this massive expansion. If this effort, modeled directly on the failed “Compassion Seattle” charter initiative, succeeds, it will almost certainly result in the kind of relatively low-cost “enhanced” shelter many people living in encampments reject, for reasons that outreach workers (and perhaps, now, come council members) understand well.
The question for Seattle isn’t, or shouldn’t be, “How will we add as many shelter beds as cheaply as we can so we can remove homeless people from public view?” It is, and should be: “How can we shelter and house unsheltered people in a way that prevents them from returning to homelessness while creating realistic expectations for housed residents who are frustrated with encampments in parks?” As the Ballard Commons example illustrates, it takes more than “X” number of shelter beds to get people to move inside. It takes time, effort, money, and a willingness to view unsheltered people as fully human.