By Erica C. Barnett
Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Unified Care Team, which removes encampments and informs their displaced residents about available shelter beds, made 1,352 offers of shelter during scheduled removals during the second quarter of this year, the Human Services Department reported this week. The number of shelter offers is greater than the number of individuals who received information about an open bed, because the number represents people who were told about shelter more than once.
Within that number, the UCT provided 554 “referrals,” in which a person said they would go to shelter. Finally, of that subset, there were 206 shelter enrollments, meaning that in 206 instances, a person with a referral actually showed up at a shelter and stayed there for at least one night. That number, which also includes duplicates, suggests that only around 15 percent of people who got a shelter “offer” actually took it; however, the true percentage of people getting into shelter after planned sweeps is probably much lower, because people tend to relocate once the city puts up signs announcing an impending encampment closure.
Another issue, committee chair Andrew Lewis noted, is that the numbers the Harrell Administration presented Thursday represent just a fraction of the total number of people displaced from encampments daily around the city—a number that also includes sweeps the city routinely conducts with no notice or offer of shelter or services.
An HSD staffer, strategic advisor Chris Klaeysen, presented the numbers to the council’s homelessness committee on Wednesday. Klaeysen demurred on a number of key questions, referring council members to Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington, who wasn’t there.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda asked Klaeysen why his presentation focused so much on the fact that the UCT offers shelter to everyone remaining at an encampment, which is something they are required to do. “Just saying that 100 percent received offers of shelter when 15 … percent confirmed they went into it—I don’t see how that conforms with our requirement that they receive an offer of shelter that works for their individual needs,” Mosqueda said.
People “refuse” shelter, to use the city’s term, for many reasons, including restrictive shelter rules, concerns about theft, and the fact that most shelters are single-gender and require people to relinquish pets and leave their partners behind. Klaeysen said UCT members have started asking people why they decline shelter, but his presentation only included the top three reasons: People wanted to wait for a tiny house; didn’t “want shelter”; or didn’t want to be separated from their partner, family member, or friends.
Another issue, committee chair Andrew Lewis noted Wednesday, is that the numbers the Harrell Administration presented Thursday represent just a fraction of the total number of people displaced from encampments daily around the city—a number that also includes sweeps the city routinely conducts with no notice or offer of shelter or services. “I don’t have any baseline to compare [these numbers] to,” Lewis said.
Historically, the city has justified no-notice sweeps by saying that a person, tent, or other property constitutes an “obstruction” if it occupies public space. Last month, a King County Superior Court ruled that the city’s definition of obstruction is unconstitutionally broad, and that the city may be violating a ruling, Martin v. Boise, that prohibits cities from displacing people when they have nowhere to go. The city has said it plans to challenge that ruling.