Surprise Sweep Displaces Fourth Avenue Encampment, Scattering Unsheltered People

Parks contractors toss tents into the back of a dump truck on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle
Workers toss tents into the back of a dump truck on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle

By Erica C. Barnett

A three-week standoff between mutual aid volunteers and the City of Seattle over a row of tents across the street from City Hall ended abruptly this morning in a surprise sweep spearheaded by police and the Seattle parks department, who cordoned off Third and Fourth Avenues between Cherry and Washington Streets and began ordering people out of their tents at 8:00 am. (The Parks Department posted removal signs at 6:00, giving anyone who happened to be awake just two hours to pack up and get out.)

By the time the work day started, police had blocked the Fourth Avenue and side entrances to City Hall with metal barricades, and dozens of officers surrounded the encampment on all sides, directing pedestrians away from the area.

Within an hour, most of the tents that have lined Fourth Avenue for months had disappeared into dump trucks, and only a few unsheltered people remained on site. Many appeared to have moved around the corner or down the street to locations outside the police tape, which was still being patrolled by dozens of officers. “Even though a two-day notice isn’t great, people can start to formulate an idea” about what they’re going to do, said Tye, a mutual-aid worker. “But this two-hour notice is super debilitating in terms of making plans for the future. …People are just going to take whatever they can carry on their backs, and they’re just going to move literally right outside of this area.”

A spokeswoman for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) told PubliCola, “We didn’t know about [the sweep] and we don’t support it.”

On the north end of the former encampment, a man who had been living in a tent at the corner of Fourth and Cherry ducked under the police line to rescue his shoes and a few personal items from his tent, which the city’s trash crew was preparing to throw away. In a statement, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said that “Seattle Parks and Recreation staff store personal items in accordance with City policy“; however, volunteers who were on site before we arrived said that the city had not set anyone’s property aside for storage, and it was obvious from observing the sweep that workers were throwing everything into dump trucks and hauling it away. UPDATE: According to an update from the mayor’s office, “individuals requested storage services, and five bins of storage were collected.”

Police patrol a closed Fourth Avenue outside City Hall.
Police patrol Fourth Avenue outside City Hall.

Harrell’s office said that the surprise sweep was necessary “to address obstruction to pedestrian access of 4th Ave between James St and Columbia St.” According to the statement, at least 15 people from the encampment received shelter referrals in the past three weeks from outreach providers and the city’s HOPE team. UPDATE: According to an update from the mayor’s office this afternoon, 22 people have received shelter referrals from the site over the last three weeks, including 7 referrals today.

Mutual-aid workers said they were aware of four people who received referrals to shelter during Wednesday’s sweep—two to the Navigation Center near 12th and Jackson and two to Lakefront Community House in North Seattle. (The mayor’s office said seven people got referrals).

“A lot of folks haven’t gotten the housing or shelter or services that they actually need and can take, so we’ve seen a lot of folks just leave,” a mutual-aid worker named Alyssa said. Referrals are not the same thing as shelter placements; a person with a referral still has to decide whether a shelter is a good fit for them and get to the shelter, where they may have to wait hours before being admitted. People often accept referrals but don’t end up in shelter, or leave because the shelter isn’t a good fit for them.

A spokeswoman for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) told PubliCola, “We didn’t know about [the sweep] and we don’t support it.”

The city, along with the KCRHA, has set a goal of reducing the number of people living unsheltered downtown from about 1,000 to “functional zero” through a combination of “peer navigation” and shelter and housing placements; sweeps like the one on Wednesday arguably contradict that goal by contributing to deep mistrust between unsheltered people and city and county authorities.

In a more practical sense, removing tents from Fourth Avenue without offering people appropriate shelter and services only moves those people to other locations—usually nearby. Throwing away people’s tents and possessions and dispersing people throughout an area doesn’t actually address their homelessness; in fact, it often makes them harder to help, by fostering mistrust and making them harder to find. Already, service providers report growing encampments in areas where people are less likely to notice and complain about tents, such as greenbelts, wooded areas near highways, and empty lots away from residential areas. When this happens, outreach workers say, it becomes much harder to find clients and help connect them to services.

21 thoughts on “Surprise Sweep Displaces Fourth Avenue Encampment, Scattering Unsheltered People”

  1. Tiny House Villages offer the best solution to this crisis until we can get more housing built and opened. They are safe and provide a locking door to each client, they surround clients with a team of people committed to their healing and forward movement into housing and they are cost effective when compared to the costs of these sweeps – which will displace this encampment and others without offering a real solution. This entire encampment could have moved directly into a new village if it were funded. They provide a kitchen, outdoor areas to gather safely, showers, bathrooms, and laundry facilities which help to preserve the dignity of the clients -with no judgment. Tiny House Villages offer a real, common sense solution to this complex crisis in Seattle as we wait for more permanent housing to open.

  2. One should not have an expectation of the right to receive advance notice of a sweep when they’ve illegally set up a tent that blocks the public sidewalk and creates safety hazards with numerous encampment fires, human waste, needles, and trash adding to the sidewalk blockage.

  3. Thank you so much for this article. It has way more information about what actually happened than any of the other news reports I’ve seen. I really appreciate your reporting.

  4. I’m glad the encampment was finally removed after 3 wks outreach interrupted by activists. The activists would like to keep the homeless living in unsafe conditions and get preyed upon by drug dealers or remain addicted. That is the worst and most uncaring thing you can do. Every homeless persons familyember would commit them to in patient mental health or drug treatment if they could – it’s not allowed in state of Washington. Please stop trying to keep people homeless and let the homeless authority and the city do its job.

    1. I happen to have a homeless family member. And I absolutely do not want to see them in drug rehab or an institution. I want to see them in subsidized housing, the type of thing we effectively have none of here. SHA and KCHA basically have a lottery every two years with a 10% chance to get on a 5+ year long waiting list. With a system like that? People can’t get an opportunity to get back on their feet.

      We don’t need mental health or addiction services for the homeless. We need 0-30% AMI housing, the type of thing that zoning reform is never going to provide.

  5. The person named Tye interviewed in this story managed Nicole Thomas-Kennedy’s campaign for City Attorney and has used Twitter to create a combination of violent rhetoric and death wishes against the former mayor, police, and the president. As such, I have a difficult time accepting much of what Tye says as credible, especially because campers were initially given notice of an upcoming removal before President’s Day weekend.

  6. The disadvantage of cracking down on illegal activities in Free-attle such as camping on a public sidewalk and storing stolen stuff in tents is that now crime will go down and there won’t be as much crime to blame on your moronic Progressive ideas. Too bad for me because I have been so entertained by Progressive stupidity. The pendulum has started swinging in the other direction after the recent Council changes, but not really very far so you can relax now. Two hours for the homeless to pack up and disappear is plenty of time. When I hop freight trains I am ready to go in two minutes 24-7. All their unsightly homeless garbage is either donated or stolen anyways. They can always get more free stuff from Progressive donating dummies. But I am distraught that a free shelter might be not be a “good fit” for a homeless person. So sad to know that they need a private room just for themselves where the tablecloth matches the drapes, five-star dining, or whatever free stuff you are suggesting is not quite good enough for them. It is so sad and tragic that the homeless don’t trust City of Seattle authorities. By the way, neither do I. All of this is going to make the homeless “harder to find”….really? Yes, that is the whole point? When they become impossible to find, my work here will be done. Steve Willie.

  7. This sweep happened immediately before Women in Black gathered to stand on 4th Avenue in front of City Hall to honor 17 more people who died outside or by violence. Without shelter people die.

    1. Sallykinney: You have a short memory or a wild imagination. Go back and read the article because the majority of deaths were not caused by being “without shelter” Do some research and report back soon OK?

  8. The City’s MDARs (which control what happens before and during sweeps) some years ago contained the hedge that if possessions are wet or otherwise considered to be garbage, they can be thrown away without storing them. The City definitely uses that hedge, and once the possessions are trashed, the owner has no proof that they existed. That has included personal papers and medication.

    1. sallykinney: perhaps a better solution is to store personal papers and medication somewhere other than a public street. Ya think?

  9. In spite of what the city policy supposedly is, “…volunteers who were on site before we arrived said that the city had not set anyone’s property aside for storage, and it was obvious from observing the sweep that workers were throwing everything into dump trucks and hauling it away.”

    This is not acceptable, city of Seattle!

    1. bri65: Of course the best place for garbage is in a landfill. It sounds like the City finally did something right. The trash is heading out to Arlington or Roosevelt right now. Should the trucks drop some garbage off for storage at your house on the way? You would never take it, and we don’t want the streets crapped up with it either.

      1. It’s real easy to trash talk those less fortunate than yourself, but it’s obvious to anyone with real world experience that you’re not interested in helping people society has exploited and ignored. It’s also obvious that you don’t know what you’re talking about, because you have this preconceived notion that everyone without a place to go is exactly like the handful of people you saw doing something illegal, most likely out of desperation. Maybe try having a little empathy if you’re capable.

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