By Erica C. Barnett
The first snowflakes were just starting to fall on Monday morning as dozens of workers from the city’s Parks Department, backed up by a half-dozen Seattle Police Department SUVs, descended on a small swath of land near Green Lake to remove tents, property, and garbage from an area where dozens of people have been living for the better part of a year.
The sweep at Green Lake Park was typical in most respects: Mutual aid workers chalked messages on the sidewalk—”This sweep is unconstitutional based on the Homestead Act and the Eighth Amend[ment]”—as members of the press, RV residents, and a lone city outreach worker milled around, waiting to see what would happen next. A tow truck pulled up to take the first vehicle away, while the owner of an RV a few vehicles back tried to get her battery to start.
Earlier in the morning, just one RV resident had made good on a plan concocted the previous week to try to occupy a parking lot several blocks away; by 9:30, the lot had been locked down and secured, with a Parks Department vehicle stationed at one entrance and a “CLOSED” sign blocking the other. A spokeswoman for the Parks Department confirmed that the RV was still on site, behind the locked gate, on Monday afternoon. Plans to move more RVs onto the site seemed quixotic, given the Parks Department’s swift action to shut the site down Monday.
In response to PubliCola’s questions about the removal, a spokesman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, Anthony Derrick, said the city used the same “intensified outreach and engagement efforts” at the encampment next to Green Lake as it did with encampments at Broadview Thomson K-8 School and the Ballard Commons.
“For several months, the Human Service Department’s HOPE Team has been coordinating outreach with the Urban League, to engage all those residing in the encampment with meaningful offers of shelter,” Derrick said. “This work has been aided by additional resource coordination in the area by REACH, Seattle Indian Center, Aurora Commons, and the Scofflaw Mitigation Team.”
The city refused for months to do any kind of outreach or engagement at Broadview Thomson, because the land—adjacent to a city park—was technically owned by the school district; for months, and until shortly before the removal, Durkan told the school district that the encampment was not the city’s problem and even suggested the district should dip into its reserves to create its own human services department.
What distinguished two recent removals from other sweeps was that a large number of desirable shelter beds and a handful of housing units came online all at once, putting the city in the highly unusual position of being able to offer people options that they actually wanted.
Accounts from homeless outreach groups contradicted the Durkan Administration’s characterization of the efforts at Green Lake. A representative from REACH said the group had not, in fact, done intensive outreach at the encampment. And a member of the Scofflaw Mitigation Team—a small group whose city funding Durkan tried to eliminate during both of the two most recent budgets—said last week that the first indication the team had that a sweep was imminent was when a client living in one of the RVs called to tell her the city was placing “No Parking” signs between the vehicles.
On Monday, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department said that the city had referred 18 people to shelter from the area since September. According to Derrick, those including 10 who received referrals to tiny house villages or a new men’s shelter in the Central District. A shelter “referral” does not mean that a person actually checks in to a shelter or stays there; it simply means that a person agreed to go to a shelter and that a shelter bed was available.
In fact, as PubliCola reported last week, what distinguished those other two removals from other sweeps was that a large number of desirable shelter beds and a handful of housing units came online all at once, putting the city in the highly unusual position of being able to offer people options that they actually wanted.
City Councilmember Dan Strauss, who represents the Green Lake area and helped coordinate the lengthy outreach process that preceded the closure of the Ballard Commons earlier this month, said the reason the Commons removal was successful was “because we coordinated efforts between community leaders, city departments, outreach workers, and my office.” This, Strauss noted, “was not the approach used to address Green Lake.”
Volunteers who’ve been on site for months, including the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, as well as people living in the park themselves, say that very few people have actually moved into shelter as the result of the city’s formal outreach efforts, which they describe as recent, occasional, and sporadic.
Most have relocated from the triangle of land the city swept on Monday into a large, sprawling tent city about one minute’s walk away, which—rumor has it (city officials would not confirm)—the city plans to leave alone until mid-January. Walking around the encampment on Friday, Bruce Drager, a neighborhood resident who has been doing volunteer outreach at the encampment every day for months, estimated that several hundred residents were still living in the uphill site site.
“About six months ago, we went from a couple of dozen folks to—at one point, there was probably 300 or 400 people total,” Drager said. “And you know why? They were coming from the other sweeps. Most of these people that live here have stories about the five, six, seven sweeps they’ve already been through, and each time they lose everything, and they’re worse off on the other end of it.”
Walking around the encampment on Friday—both the lower encampment the city is calling “Green Lake” and the upper one designated “Woodland Park”—several encampment residents said they would be willing to go inside if the city offered them a place that met their needs. One man said two people tried to get into a tiny house by going down to the lower encampment, but were turned away because they “didn’t live there,” and thus weren’t eligible for services. Another camper said she has claustrophobia and would accept a hotel room, but not a tiny house.
By Monday, all of the tents in the smaller, lower encampment were gone, and the only remaining residents were the people living in RVs. The city offers shelter beds to people living in their vehicles, too, but it’s a hard sell—giving up your vehicle to move into a shelter, even if you win the lottery and get a tiny house or a private room, means abandoning almost all of your possessions, your privacy, and—if your vehicle is running—your transportation.
“People’s personal possessions are in these motor homes,” said James Wlos, a 21-year Seattle resident who has lived in his van for the last 10 years. For Wlos, losing his van would mean losing his mobility and his ability to go to his part-time job. “Any time I’m parked on the street, I’m in danger of losing what I’ve got,” he said. “I owe so much to Lincoln Towing,” the company the city contracts to tow and store impounded vehicles, “I’ll never pay it all. I have no credit. I can’t get credit to buy a hamburger.”
In a statement, Mayor Durkan’s office said, “In recent months, Mayor Durkan, outreach providers and City employees have been working to bring hundreds of new 24/7 shelter spaces online and offer safer spaces in order to address the city’s largest encampments. Over the past several weeks, the City has successfully connected hundreds of individuals with a path to housing in key locations like City Hall Park, Ballard Commons, University Playground, and Pioneer Park, and will continue to move people indoors as more shelter comes online.”
Derrick, the Durkan spokesman, said the city has opened “530 new shelter units” since the beginning of the pandemic. But that number is both inadequate to shelter the thousands of people living outdoors in Seattle and misleading, because it includes nearly 200 rooms in two temporary hotel-based shelters that will close down in January.
The Durkan administration ends in less than two weeks. For the past four years, administration officials have put a consistently sunny spin on the city’s response to homelessness; no matter how dire or dispiriting the numbers, for Team Durkan, the news has always been good and getting better. Last week, King County released new numbers suggesting that there are 45,000 or more people experiencing homelessness in King County. In that context, it’s hard to see 18 shelter referrals over three months as much more than a rounding error.