Harrell Budget Would Permanently Expand Encampment Cleanup and Removal Team

Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington and Mayor Bruce Harrell

By Erica C. Barnett

Previewing a budget proposal the council will discuss Friday morning, Mayor Bruce Harrell said on Thursday that unless the city council renews and expands funding for encampment removal and response, the “significant decrease in tents in parks and on sidewalks” since he took office might go away.

“If that funding is not renewed … this level of service that we’re demonstrating will lapse. The progress we’re making in the city, building our ‘One Seattle,’ will lapse,” Harrell said.

Harrell has proposed spending just over $38 million on the Unified Care Team and the Clean City Initiative, two initiatives that encompass a wide variety of spending and staff across several city departments, including Parks, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and Seattle Public Utilities. The two programs include all of the city’s spending related to encampment removals, outreach, and trash pickup, including the city’s “purple bag” encampment trash abatement program.

A majority of that money, about $23 million, would continue existing programs. The rest would be new funding—$10 million to replace temporary federal dollars added during COVID, and $5 million in brand-new programming. 

According to council presentation, the new funding “could significantly increase the Unified Care Team’s capacity to conduct encampment removals” across the city.

Overall, Harrell’s budget would 61 new permanent positions to the city’s encampment removal, outreach, and cleanup efforts. Among other new positions, the money would pay for two new customer service representatives to respond to encampment complaints, six new “system navigators” to do outreach and make offers of shelter in advance of encampment removals, and 48 new permanent positions in SDOT and the parks department to coordinate and conduct encampment removals.

In addition to making a number of positions funded with one-time federal emergency dollars permanent, Harrell has proposed changing the way UCT staff are deployed. Instead of working as a citywide team, staffers would be assigned to one of six geographic areas, a change Harrell said would enable encampment response workers to become more familiar with the communities and organizations where they work.

Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington said that since Harrell took office, the city has eliminated a backlog of “1,500 complaints related to unauthorized encampments” and continues to develop more tools to respond to and resolve encampment complaints.

“What that means,” Washington said, “is that… we send someone from the Unified Care Team to do an inspection and then we resolve the issue if we can. ‘Resolve’ could be RV remediation. It could be hauling away a burnt RV that had been sitting there for weeks. It could mean making a referral to shelter and then resolving the site. And so when we say we cleared [a request], it means that for all of those [1,500] requests, someone went to the site to do an inspection, put the data in the database, and then we either addressed it, or it self-resolved.”

Harrell’s proposal would also eliminate funding for street sinks that would have provided unsheltered people places to wash their hands, and would reduce spending on public “hygiene stations” (temporary restrooms) and mobile shower trailers for people experiencing homelessness, saving a total of $1.3 million.

The request for millions in additional funding for encampment cleanups comes at a time when the city is trying to close a $141 million shortfall that is projected to grow larger every year until at least 2025. According to an issue-identification presentation prepared for the city council’s budget committee, which will discuss Harrell’s proposal tomorrow morning, the new funding “could significantly increase [the UCT’s] capacity to conduct encampment removals” across the city.  A memo accompanying that presentation adds that, legally speaking, there’s no guarantee that the new funding won’t be used to “accelerate encampment removals.”

Harrell’s proposal would also eliminate funding for street sinks that would have provided unsheltered people places to wash their hands, and would reduce spending on public “hygiene stations” (temporary restrooms) and mobile shower trailers for people experiencing homelessness, saving a total of $1.3 million.

Harrell’s predecessor, Jenny Durkan, repeatedly refused to fund or implement the street-sink program, which could have helped prevent repeated outbreaks of diseases like shigella and hepatitis A among Seattle’s homeless population.

“We have to simultaneously improve service response to rapidly house people living in shelter, and coordinate strategies to ensure public spaces are open, safe, and can be used for their intended purpose,” Washington said. As we’ve reported, there are far more people living unsheltered in Seattle than there are available shelter beds, which means it is not even theoretically possible to shelter everyone who is living outdoors.

On Wednesday in downtown Seattle, officials formally announced an effort we reported on last month to create a unified “command center” to connect people living unsheltered downtown to housing and shelter.

On a practical level, what this means is that when the city sweeps an encampment, most of the people living there do not end up in shelter, but simply “self-resolve” by moving to another location. Outreach workers, including those employed by the city, may have only one or two shelter beds to offer to the people who remain on site, which may or may not be appropriate for the people who happen to remain in that encampment. Even when people do “accept” an offer of shelter, half or more don’t end up enrolling for even one night, a damning indictment of the shelter referral system the city uses in the overwhelming majority of encampment “resolutions.”

During his presentation Thursday, Harrell name-checked the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which will receive around $90 million from the city next year—a $10 million bump. On Wednesday, Harrell, KCRHA director Marc Dones, and representatives from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office officially announced an effort we reported on last month to create a unified “command center” to connect people living unsheltered downtown to housing and shelter.

The center—technically a conference room at the city’s Emergency Operations Center downtown—is part of a public-private effort to reduce the number of unsheltered people downtown to “functional zero” by next year. The goal, KCRHA and HUD officials said, is to break down the “silos” that keep various parts of the homelessness system from working well with each other; for example, cities often require people to go through the shelter system before they “graduate” to housing, an extra step that can act as a barrier for people stuck in the homelessness system.

So far, according to data KCRHA provided this week, the agency’s outreach staff have connected with 665 people living unsheltered downtown and identified about 300 units of existing housing for them; the goal, Dones said Wednesday, is to offer people at least three housing options to choose from, instead of the typical one, and to reduce the barriers to housing faced by people who are homeless or poor.

“What we have built into our housing system for folks experiencing homelessness is this incredibly aggressive set of mechanisms that are all based on the idea that people who are poor are out to commit fraud at every turn,” Dones said. “This morning, we were talking about,  how do we not need any of the things [like ID cards and income checks] that we’re used to needing? And if we just had this piece of paper, with someone’s housing preferences on it, how can we have them housed in 12 hours?”

That concept, however, remains speculative; so far, the effort has not moved anyone into housing, and there is no funding for additional housing or shelter attached to the project.

3 thoughts on “Harrell Budget Would Permanently Expand Encampment Cleanup and Removal Team”

  1. Moving encampments does do something – it gets outreach to each person in the camp. It interrupts drug use for a time period and gives campers a window to accepting help. Disrupting drug use is key to getting users to accept help.

  2. How much of that $38M is spent uselessly sweeping homeless folks from one park to another? I have been shepherding the Emergency Housing Voucher process for 10 months for a young man who will finally get into his apartment next Tues. He has been swept 3 times. Better to spend that money on permanent housing. Only a fraction of campers are offered any reasonable shelter before a sweep.

    1. Yes. “removing encampments” does nothing to resolve the issue of people living unhoused. It just moves the complaints from one neighborhood to another. Removing street sinks, bathrooms and mobile showers without housing people means that the per person cost will go UP as people get sick and access emergency room services when there are outbreaks in communities without hygiene resources. This is a terrible, inhumane plan.

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