Most City Shelter “Referrals” Don’t Lead to Shelter, Police Preemptively Barricade Encampment Against Protests, City Says It Can’t Risk Handing HOPE Team to County

Chart showing trends in outreach and service connections by Navigation Team and HOPE Team
Source: Seattle City Council central staff report

1. Fewer than half the people referred to shelter by the city’s HOPE team last year actually showed up to shelter and stayed there for at least one night, according to data released by the city’s Human Services Department during a meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee this week.

The city’s HOPE Team, which provides shelter referrals to people living in encampments the city is about to remove, referred 1,072 people to shelter in 2021; of those, 512 enrolled in shelter, meaning that they showed up and slept in a shelter for at least one night within 48 hours of receiving a referral. The HOPE Team has exclusive access to about 800 beds, or a third of the shelter beds in the city.

HSD deputy director Michael Bailey told council members the department is prioritizing people in the highest-priority locations (like downtown Seattle and Woodland Park) for shelter first, along with “individuals with multiple vulnerabilities from all over.”

“As you know, we can’t overrule someone’s decision to decline shelter, but we can work with the individual to better understand their unique needs and the factors contributing to that decision,” Bailey said.

Although the number of referrals went up in 2021, that was largely because hundreds of new permanent housing and shelter beds came online all at once, adding new supply to the shelter system that was immediately filled by people being removed from high-priority encampments. As a separate report from the council’s central staff notes, nonprofit service providers requested shelter for their clients four times more often than the city provided a referral, meaning that the vast majority of people seeking shelter were unable to find it.

2. One of the persistent oddities of the city’s homelessness system is that the HOPE Team has remained at the City of Seattle, serving as a kind of vestigial arm of the disbanded Homelessness Strategy and Investments division, even as every other aspect of the homelessness system has transferred to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

At Thursday’s meeting, Bailey introduced a somewhat novel explanation for the city’s decision to retain the HOPE Team: Without control over shelter referrals, Seattle risked violating rules that govern how and when the city can remove encampments. “The city is unable to shift this liability” to the RHA by making the authority responsible for outreach in advance of city-led encampment removals, the, Bailey said.

The Multi-Department Administrative Rules, or MDARs, require the city to provide 72 hours’ notice and offers of available shelter before removing an encampment, unless that encampment is an “obstruction” in the public right-of-way or poses an immediate danger to the public. For several years, the city has defined “obstruction” very broadly, allowing it to routinely skirt the 72 hour and shelter referral requirements whenever an encampment is in a public park, on a sidewalk, or on any other public property.

Following up by email in response to PubliCola’s questions, Bailey said the HOPE Team “remains a City entity because it allows the City to meet its obligation to comply with the encampment removal rules. … Specifically, the City must identify or provide alternative shelter before removing non-obstructing encampments. The City is unable to shift this obligation to the RHA, despite the contracts moving to RHA, and is thus responsible for ensuring that it has the resources necessary (i.e., the HOPE Team) to do this body of work in the event RHA or its service providers decline to assist.”

Routinely displacing people from downtown without notice may be fundamentally incompatible with intensive case management, which requires not just stability but the ability to locate clients when a resource, such as a treatment bed or tiny house, becomes available.

3. According to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, the HOPE Team did offer shelter referrals to 14 people (of 18 who were on site) when it removed an encampment under I-5 in the Chinatown/International District on Thursday, although it’s unclear how many of those people actually ended up in shelter. (A spokesman for the mayor’s office said the encampment was an obstruction.)

Although the sweep was typical in certain ways—the city routinely removes people from this location, a perennial encampment site that offers some protection from wind and rain —it was noteworthy in one respect: The presence of a phalanx of bike officers, who blocked off the encampment with police tape and issued verbal warnings that any protesters who tried to enter the area could be arrested.

Bike officers line the sidewalk outside an encampment removal at 9th and Jackson.
Bike officers line the sidewalk outside an encampment removal at 9th and Jackson.

Prior to COVID, the city routinely stationed police outside encampments—a practice that tended to heighten tensions rather than alleviate them. Mayor Bruce Harrell appears to be reviving the practice; according to a spokesman for Harrell’s office, the city decided that “[g]iven potential protest activities, a larger SPD presence was required to ensure the safety of City workers and encampment residents” at yesterday’s removal. Stop the Sweeps Seattle posted photos of the city’s encampment removal notices on social media, but did not turn up in large numbers on Thursday.

The mayor’s office may have felt burned by a protest that temporarily halted the removal of a large encampment across the street from city hall. After a weekslong standoff with protesters, the city swept the encampment abruptly last week, barricading several blocks of downtown Seattle in an early-morning action that sparked numerous verbal confrontations between police officers and mutual aid workers who tried to enter the area.

According to Harrell’s spokesman, “The number of officers and their equipment is dependent on the circumstances of the removal and potential protest activities. Encampment removal teams have always worked in partnership with SPD, and SPD officers will continue to be onsite during removal activities.”

The city’s aggressive approach to encampments in public spaces downtown (which, technically, are almost all “obstructions” in that they occupy public space) could come into conflict with the regional homelessness authority’s recently launched “Partnership For Zero,” a plan to eliminate almost all encampments downtown through intensive case management, led by “peer navigators” who have been homeless themselves.

Sweeps scatter people and exacerbate the chaos of their lives. Routinely displacing people from downtown without notice may be fundamentally incompatible with intensive case management, which requires not just stability but the ability to locate clients when a resource, such as a treatment bed or tiny house, becomes available.

—Erica C. Barnett

3 thoughts on “Most City Shelter “Referrals” Don’t Lead to Shelter, Police Preemptively Barricade Encampment Against Protests, City Says It Can’t Risk Handing HOPE Team to County”

  1. Finally the City is sweeping the camps AND providing shelter even if “campers “ don’t take it or stay more than one night. One night, by the way, is a terrible measurement
    We are no obligation beyond shelter and we should pull back from anything more unless Court ordered..

    1. So because we aren’t obligated, we shouldn’t do better? Have you been in a shelter? Do you have a partner or pet(s)? If a shelter that takes either doesn’t have those types of beds or rooms, you’ll have to go and get swept again from somewhere else to try again. Nice lottery system we got running…not.

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