By Erica C. Barnett
Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration drafted a new “sidewalk strategy” for homeless encampments earlier this year that would have empowered the city’s new Unified Care Team, bolstered by Seattle police, to require anyone living in a public right-of-way in Seattle to move with just two hours’ notice, PubliCola has learned.
In January, Harrell’s strategic initiatives director Tim Burgess sent a memo to King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones titled “A New Approach to Tent Encampments on Sidewalks and Other Transportation Rights-of-Way.” In the memo, which PubliCola obtained through a records request, the new administration outlined a zero-tolerance strategy toward people living on sidewalks, in which “[c]ampers that remain will be given two hours’ notice to leave” to leave. The Human Services Department’s HOPE Team, along with King County Regional Homelessness Authority “outreach teams will offer services as appropriate, but these services will not be a prerequisite before asking campers to clear the public space,” the memo said.
Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen told PubliCola the sidewalk plan was never implemented. “Instead, the Mayor’s Office focused on streamlining City efforts through the launch of the Unified Care Team,” a group of employees from several city departments who are in charge of “”address[ing] the impacts of unsheltered homelessness in the city,” Housen said. But the administration’s dramatic acceleration of encampment removals, and its decision to focus first on reducing the number of people living on downtown sidewalks to zero, echo these early policy discussions.
In addition to the memo shared by Burgess, PubliCola has obtained a PowerPoint presentation created by administration officials earlier this year describes the downtown “Partnership for Zero,” which aims to eliminate encampments downtown by relocating people to appropriate shelter or housing, as the administration’s “safe sidewalk plan.” Harrell “wants to address obstructions in the right of way ASAP,” according to the presentation.
A separate set of presentations and internal memos, obtained through the same records request, reveals another aspect of Harrell’s approach to encampment removals that the administration has been reluctant to describe publicly: An “encampment scoring system” that allocates “scores” to encampments based on a set of criteria, including violent incidents, fires, proximity to parks or children, and sidewalk obstructions.
Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen described the scoring system as only one part of the mayor’s encampment prioritization strategy. “The scoring system is the building blocks for encampment prioritization,” Housen said. “The system is currently being tested and frequently refined as we learn more, to ensure the right information is driving decisions.”
The “Sidewalk Strategy”
In a memo from late January titled “Tent Highlights,” the Harrell administration outlined the basics of a new strategy to “[e]nd tent encampments on sidewalks and transportation rights-of-ways… a step that is essential to the economic recovery of the downtown and our neighborhood business areas.”
“City staff, including specially trained police officers, will be present when campers are notified that they must relocate,” the memo continues. “This is a harm-reduction approach, meaning campers will be asked to leave/relocate so the space remains clear and accessible by all.”
Dones expressed concerns in their comments on the memo about the possibility that the city would start sweeping downtown sidewalks before the KCRHA could implement its business-funded Partnership for Zero strategy. This strategy, which is still getting underway, aims to provide intensive case management by dozens of “system advocates” who will fan out across downtown and attempt to place everyone living in the area into appropriate shelter or housing, leaving downtown effectively encampment-free.
“I don’t think that going through the city and just saying ‘No tents on sidewalks’ is feasible or advisable… and saying to folks, ‘You have two hours to move all your stuff’ is not reasonable.”—King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones
“This seems like something that would be more successful if implemented completely after [the Partnership for Zero] drawdown phase is complete. Because then it’s about keeping sidewalks and right of ways clear,” Dones commented. The two-hour rule, Dones added, “feels difficult to enforce. How will people be made aware of the shifting rules? I would also extend the initial timeline so that when it’s announced people have X amount of time but then in the future they have Y amount of time.”
Reflecting on their comments on the memo last week, Dones said, “I don’t think that going through the city and just saying ‘No tents on sidewalks’ is feasible or advisable… and saying to folks, ‘You have two hours to move all your stuff’ is not reasonable.”
“Some of this sounds like what would make sense for implementation after [the “drawdown” phase of Partnership for Zero], as we’re talking about maintaining functional zero,” Dones added. “Then we could have that conversation about how we want to maintain spaces where people are not encamped, but the reason they’re not encamped is because we’re actively [housing or sheltering] them in real time.”
Housen, from the mayor’s office, said the city “stands in partnership with the KCRHA, King County, and We Are In in our support of Partnership for Zero. We look forward to the ramp up of that project and opportunities to work in alignment and coordination with the RHA towards the goal of the project.”
Asked how maintaining a visible police presence during encampment removals represented a “harm reduction approach,” Housen reiterated the city’s position that “activists and protestors” pose a threat to workers during sweeps and that police—who only began are necessary to “ensure that all people onsite, including City workers and encampment residents, are safe.”
Prioritizing for Sweeps
In addition to obstructions on sidewalks—the basis of the early “sidewalk strategy”—the mayor’s office established criteria for deciding which encampments to remove. During a recent press event, both Housen and Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington declined to describe any of the criteria in detail, but emphasized that they were “objective”— in other words, “you don’t get a higher rank because 20 people called” to complain, Washington said.
An internal presentation on the prioritization system, distributed in April, but bearing the official date June 21, 2022, says the Unified Care Team prioritizes shootings, fires, and major obstructions, followed by issues like trash; proximity to parks and places where children or elderly people congregate; and places where tents pose a visual obstruction to drivers.
According to Housen, the “scoring system” in the presentation represents “the building blocks for encampment prioritization. The system is currently being tested and frequently refined as we learn more, to ensure the right information is driving decisions.”
The King County Regional Homelessness Authority is preparing to release its own set of criteria for prioritizing encampments for outreach and offers of shelter or housing next week, which will differ somewhat from the city’s criteria. “We talk about encampment resolution, not removal, and resolution for us is everybody actually came inside,” Dones said. “We are not in favor of a displacement-based strategy, and we will engage over whatever period of time is necessary to get everybody into a real placement—not a referral, a placement.”
Overall, though, Dones said the Harrell administration’s prioritization scheme is about “85 percent consistent with how the authority is going to view prioritization,” including the emphasis on violence at encampments. “We agree with that prioritization,” Dones said, and “in our work, we have a corresponding section that looks at violence—things like physical assault, potentially nonphysical assault, verbal abuse, etc. between campers, ranging between simple assaults all way up to shots fired, and ranks those things with different weights.” Public Defender Association co-director Lisa Daugaard, whose organization has spearheaded several pandemic-era programs aimed at sheltering and stabilizing homeless people who engage in criminal activity, argues that sweeping encampments where violence has occurred merely destabilizes encampment residents without addressing the issues that lead to violence.
For example, Daugaard notes, people often become victims of violence because they’re unable to pay their debts. When that happens, “the person’s situation is what is generating the violence. When that person and their debts wash up into another location, that location will then be deemed a ‘violent location,’ so dispersing people just disperses the violence” and exacerbates it.
“Any prioritization scheme is just arbitrary, because most places where people are living outside are so problematic that they deserve priority. What’s at the top is urgent, and what’s at the bottom is also urgent.”—Lisa Daugaard, Public Defender Association
Even a prioritization scheme that didn’t put violence at the top of the list would be “arbitrary,” Daugaard added, “because most places where people are living outside are so problematic that they deserve priority. What’s at the top is urgent, and what’s at the bottom is also urgent.” In that situation, “any response is good—as long as what you’re responding with is a methodology that doesn’t just relocate the issues and cause people to lose their things,” like sweeps.
Seattle does not have much of a track record of responding with this kind of methodology; with a few notable exceptions, and increasingly since Harrell took office, the city’s primary encampment policy has involved telling people to leave a location after offering them whatever shelter beds happen to be on hand. On a typical night, only a handful of beds are available citywide, and an available bed may not be appropriate for a particular person—one reason so few shelter referrals actually result in a person staying in shelter for a single night.
Currently, the machinery of encampment removals is in the process of shifting to the Unified Care Team, which the mayor’s office hopes will replace the previous, “siloed” approach. The team, which includes about 60 people working for the parks, human services, utility, and transportation departments, is in charge of removing tents or RVs, cleaning up areas where encampments were located, and ensuring that parks and public spaces are “clean and open for visitors,” according to an internal description of the new team’s responsibilities, obtained through a records request. The team is still evolving, and could continue to grow.
According to a memo produced by the mayor’s office for a council presentation in March, the UCT “determines what encampment sites are prioritized by the City and the timelines for those sites being addressed” and coordinates actual encampment removals. The city’s HOPE Team, a group of six Human Service Department employees that does outreach to encampments and assists in sweeps, is the city’s only remaining human services response to homelessness now that the regional homelessness authority is up and running.
Meanwhile, the sweeps continue. According to a calendar distributed last month, the city plans to remove at least a dozen encampments and RV sites in July, a number that does not count any of the other encampments that will be removed during the month due to emergent concerns about safety, obstructions, and other issues.