Council Member’s Homelessness Plan Could Include 10 New Mass Encampments for Up to 600 People

Anti-sweeps signs near a tent encampment in downtown Seattle.
Anti-sweeps signs near a tent encampment in downtown Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

As part of an effort to substantially reduce the number of unsheltered people living in downtown Seattle before summer, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis is working on a plan to relocate as many as 600 people into sanctioned encampments around the city.

In an email sent last week to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s director of strategic initiatives Tim Burgess, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, lobbyist Ryan Bayne, and former city council member Sally Bagshaw, plus aides for Lewis and Harrell, Lewis laid out “a short-term displacement plan for visible pre-Memorial Day progress” that would involve removing and relocating unsheltered people from downtown Seattle into as many as 10 fenced-off encampments elsewhere in the city.

These encampments, which might be located on property owned by the city, Sound Transit, local churches, and the Port, would include case management (along with toilets, food, and showers), and could be up and running in as little as four weeks, Lewis said in his email. After people are relocated, Lewis continued, the tents could gradually be replaced by pallet shelters or tiny houses, with the goal of moving everyone rapidly from encampments to housing, such as the Health Through Housing hotels King County is working to open, within a year to 18 months.

“The strategy I am proposing here is to make a practical acceptance that more permanent housing and sheltering options likely won’t be available until the fall,” Lewis wrote. (Emphasis in original.) “THE WAITING ROOM WILL EITHER BE UNSANCTIONED ENCAMPMENTS OR SOME INTERIM STRATEGY LIKE THIS. That is the choice we face.”

Why Memorial Day? According to Lewis’ email, visible homelessness always spikes during the summer; “If we still don’t have a policy to prevent unsanctioned encampments from putting down roots before Memorial Day, they will grow and make the problem even more difficult to mitigate.”

“The summer has to encourage more firms to not only return to work but new ones to come in and set up shop. It has to demonstrate that we are the one West Coast major city capable of figuring out how to make visible progress on homelessness.”—Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

The proposal to move most of the homeless people downtown into sanctioned encampments in the span of a little more than three months comes in the context of an announcement last week that a group of private foundations and local corporations will donate $10 million to help kickstart a plan to move about 1,000 people living unsheltered downtown into shelter or housing elsewhere. That plan has five phases, culminating in a “hold steady” phase once most encampments are removed from downtown streets. The proposal to relocate unsheltered people from tents on the sidewalk to tents in sanctioned camps suggests one way the city might achieve its goal of an encampment-free downtown.

“It’s clear the [Harrell] administration has a policy where they do not want to have encampments in the downtown business district,” Lewis told PubliCola Monday. “It’s the prerogative of the executive to do those removals, and we need something to fill that gap.”

Marc Dones, the head of the regional homelessness authority, said Tuesday that the authority had nothing to do with the encampment proposal and that they had only heard about it through a forwarded email last week. Dones said they had asked Harrell’s office for more information about the proposal.

In his email, Lewis said removing encampments would be a necessary part of downtown recovery after two years of COVID. “The summer has to be the summer of recovery,” Lewis wrote. “It has to show people returning to work, tourists, and the local media that Seattle is capable of swiftly and compassionately managing our homelessness crisis. It has to encourage more firms to not only return to work but new ones to come in and set up shop. It has to demonstrate that we are the one West Coast major city capable of figuring out how to make visible progress on homelessness.”

Lewis told PubliCola he doesn’t consider the encampment idea a “perfect” or even a permanent solution to unsheltered homelessness downtown.  “One of the things [outreach provider] REACH says all the time is, ‘Give us something better” [to offer unsheltered people],  and this would be something better. Not something perfect and not something great, but something we could work with and improve over time.” REACH director Chloe Gale said she was unaware of the proposal on Monday.

“If it were up to me and I could wave a magic wand, we’d do a bunch of tiny house villages,” Lewis added, and pointed to Nickelsville as an example of an encampment that eventually evolved into a tiny house village. “All of our tiny house villages started out as sanctioned encampments,” Lewis said.

Bagshaw, who recently returned to Seattle after a fellowship at at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Institute, pointed to the recent removal of a longstanding encampment in Boston as an example Seattle should try to emulate. People living in the encampment, known as “Mass. and Cass,” were offered shelter, including some rooms in a local hotel, reunited with family, or simply told to leave, according to local media reports.

“They offered them two or three options and said ‘We’re going to give you a supported hotel room or a supported apartment, but “no” is not an option,'” said Bagshaw, who lives downtown and has no formal position at the city. “They said, ‘We’re trying to live in a civilized space for everybody, and it’s not okay for you to pitch a tent wherever you want and however you want and to steal to support your habit. You’re not going to be able to stay here, and we’re going to give you 72 hours to figure it out.”

Both Lewis and Bagshaw pointed to JustCARE—a service-rich program that provides temporary housing and case management for people involved in the criminal legal system—as an example of the kind of approach that works for people who have many barriers to housing, including substance use, outstanding warrants, and long-term homelessness. “JustCARE is what we need, but we can’t wait until JustCARE has 600 units,” Bagshaw said.

“Most of the folks out on the streets of downtown right now have extensive barriers that would normally result in them being screened out of group living situations. It won’t help much to invest in large scale accommodations that don’t match the situation of most of those who are actually on the street.”—Public Defender Association co-director Lisa Daugaard

In theory, people who need extensive services could be channeled into JustCARE over time. In practice, funding for JustCARE expires at the end of June, and the program is no longer taking new clients beyond the 230 it currently serves.

In his email, Lewis estimated that the encampments would cost between $800,000 and $1.2 million a year to operate, for a total of $8 million to $12 million a year, not counting capital costs. “The hardest part will be case management and services. But even there, I don’t know how daunting the numbers truly are,” Lewis wrote.” If we assume a ratio of one case manager to every 20 campers, and a maximum capacity of 600 people, the whole operation requires 30 case managers organized across our entire spectrum of providers. We should be able to manage it with a ramp up of several weeks.”

Public Defender Association co-director Lisa Daugaard, whose organization is one of the partners in JustCARE, said homeless service providers have already been “crushed by a combination of COVID impacts, the workforce crisis throughout the health and social services sector nationally, and public policy design that ignores their expertise.” Lewis confirmed that he had not discussed his encampment proposal with local outreach providers, including those working with unsheltered people downtown.

“I would not assume that a quick response team will be able to jump forward to start a new initiative, especially one they weren’t involved in designing,” Daugaard continued. “Most providers are seeing such positions sit unfilled for months at a time.”

Daugaard said the majority of people living downtown need intensive case management, services, and low-barrier housing. “Most of the folks out on the streets of downtown right now have extensive barriers—beyond [the desire to retain] pets/partners/possessions—that would normally result in them being screened out of group living situations. It won’t help much to invest in large scale accommodations that don’t match the situation of most of those who are actually on the street.”

In fact, although Lewis said most of the new encampments would be “low-barrier”—allowing people in active addiction, for example, or those with behavioral health conditions that make them particularly disruptive on the streets of downtown Seattle—it’s unclear how this would work in practice. Nickelsville—Lewis’ exemplar of a tiny house village that started as a camp—kicks people out for violating its strict rules against drugs, alcohol, and “abusive” behavior, and the Low-Income Housing Institute has a strict code of conduct for its tiny house villages, requiring on-site sobriety and barring sex offenders, for example.

Bagshaw said she sees sanctioned camps as being “not the solution, but a place where people can go where there are hygiene facilities, they can get water, they can get food, there’s connection. … All across the nation, people say ‘housing first,’ but in order to get housing, you have to have people willing to build the homes and do the operations, and in the meantime, you have to have places for people to stay that are not on the street.”

Even in the absence of sanctioned encampments or other new places for people to go, the Harrell Administration appears to be ramping up sweeps downtown. On Sunday, anti-sweeps activists prevented city workers from removing a large encampment on Fourth Avenue across from City Hall, but it’s unlikely that the removal will be forestalled for long, nor that it will be the last.

Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said that as of last Thursday, the city’s HOPE Team had offered shelter referrals to three people in the area. “While we will do its best to offer shelter as available through the City’s HOPE team and the efforts of the RHA, we cannot allow tents and other structures to remain in the right of way if they are causing an obstruction or presenting a public health or safety risk. Under the City’s existing procedural rules, there is no requirement for offers of shelter when an encampment is creating an obstruction.”

The city’s rules for removing encampments require the city to provide 72 hours’ notice and offers of shelter before removing an encampment, but allow the city to clear encampments without notice, and with no offers of shelter or services, when an encampment poses an “obstruction.” During the Durkan Administration, the city interpreted this “obstruction” exemption broadly, to include any encampment on a sidewalk, in a park, or virtually any other public space. 

Most encampments in downtown Seattle exist in the public right-of-way and could be viewed as “obstructions,” potentially calling the entire premise of last week’s announcement about compassionate outreach, peer navigation, and individualized shelter and housing placements into question.

10 thoughts on “Council Member’s Homelessness Plan Could Include 10 New Mass Encampments for Up to 600 People”

  1. I’ve never heard of anyone selling their EBT card. That wouldn’t go very well. Street-level EBT fraud typically involves the cooperation of a merchant who makes a “sale” via EBT of goods that are then immediately “returned” by the buyer for some lesser amount of cash.

    1. MarciaX: This video (repost) explains how some EBT theft works: The woman in this video knows the truth about the homeless in Seattle: – I apologize in advance for the truth. This is going to destroy your Progressive logic so all you snowflakes get to your safe spaces.

  2. “Daugaard said the majority of people living downtown need intensive case management, services, and low-barrier housing.” Even if such a massive number of encampment sites were able to be established, there is still the need for skilled case managers with the resources they need to do an effective job. Where are those people going to come from? I just don’t see it.

    1. jdarsie2017: By “case management” they mean “hand out more free stuff”. Why do Progressives believe that a problem which was created by handing out free stuff can be solved by handing out more free stuff? There they go again trying to double-down on failure. Progressive logic: when you double-down on failure, you get success!! Lets have free stuff for everyone!

  3. It is positively hilarious how Progressives created the homeless crisis then they want to blame it on Covid (I know!….see the article). The logic in their pea-brains is that recovery from Insley’s Covid lock-downs will somehow reduce the number of homeless. There was an eviction moratorium….remember? So tell me again what percentage got bounced out onto the pavement by their Landlord? But you should not believe what I say. Just believe it when the number of homeless continues to increase long after Covid is gone. What will be your excuse then? Will the homeless magically transform from Covid victims into climate refugees? Do you think the smart people will forget that you called them Covid victims? Get your lame excuses ready….you’ll be needing them. Steve Willie.

  4. Progressives like to make themselves look smart by using different phrases to mean the exact same thing. Call this “Phrase Fraud”. The definition of “case manager”, “peer navigator”, and “outreach provider” is the same for each. Here it is: “Person who hands out the free stuff to those on a bad plan while educating them about how they can jack the system for a larger fee” …not lookin’ so smart now eh? Steve Willie.

  5. Also make it illegal to sell your EBT card. It only can be used by the person it’s issued to. If not used in a certain time, the balance disappears.

  6. Do intelligent people see this as any kind of actual solution? I know the question answers itself. This joke is low-hanging fruit for a comedian such as I. This is nothing more than a nation-wide invitation for everyone on a bad plan to gather in Seattle. Get ready for the Summer-of-Free-Stuff. This must be how Seattle gets more tourism. We put the homeless on free bus rides and they ride around in circles all day at the taxpayer’s expense. Not only will this fail miserably, it will cost much more than current estimates. Get ready for the needles, garbage, smash-and-grabs, shootings, stabbings, arson fires, EBT fraud, and the list goes on. Be sure to throw them lots of baloney sandwiches as you drive by so the rats will multiply faster. The number of homeless and rats in Seattle will increase substantially, just in time for next winter. I already won this argument before it even started. You are all going to look like fools…..again. Ready….go! HA HA.

    1. We do need to start collecting by name data on where people came from. We can only house so many. If our housing and shelters full we should offer bus tickets to your city of choice. Strictly enforce no camping in city parks and on streets. Stop crisis teams from giving new arrivals a tent and from bringing new arrivals to our parks to camp.

      1. Talker2: A bus ticket ??…still better yet: For just a little more money, give them a fishing pole and a one-way plane ticket to Oahu, where they can camp right on the beach below Diamond Head Road under the beautiful Kuilei Cliffs. The free stuff is only 2 miles away, the weather is superior, the views are magnificent, and the fish are delish’. Now there is a plan! It beats Seattle by a long shot…. help me get the word out.

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