Tag: encampment removals

Council Member’s Homelessness Plan Could Include 10 New Mass Encampments for Up to 600 People

Anti-sweeps signs near a tent encampment in downtown Seattle.
Anti-sweeps signs near a tent encampment in downtown Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

As part of an effort to substantially reduce the number of unsheltered people living in downtown Seattle before summer, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis is working on a plan to relocate as many as 600 people into sanctioned encampments around the city.

In an email sent last week to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s director of strategic initiatives Tim Burgess, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, lobbyist Ryan Bayne, and former city council member Sally Bagshaw, plus aides for Lewis and Harrell, Lewis laid out “a short-term displacement plan for visible pre-Memorial Day progress” that would involve removing and relocating unsheltered people from downtown Seattle into as many as 10 fenced-off encampments elsewhere in the city.

These encampments, which might be located on property owned by the city, Sound Transit, local churches, and the Port, would include case management (along with toilets, food, and showers), and could be up and running in as little as four weeks, Lewis said in his email. After people are relocated, Lewis continued, the tents could gradually be replaced by pallet shelters or tiny houses, with the goal of moving everyone rapidly from encampments to housing, such as the Health Through Housing hotels King County is working to open, within a year to 18 months.

“The strategy I am proposing here is to make a practical acceptance that more permanent housing and sheltering options likely won’t be available until the fall,” Lewis wrote. (Emphasis in original.) “THE WAITING ROOM WILL EITHER BE UNSANCTIONED ENCAMPMENTS OR SOME INTERIM STRATEGY LIKE THIS. That is the choice we face.”

Why Memorial Day? According to Lewis’ email, visible homelessness always spikes during the summer; “If we still don’t have a policy to prevent unsanctioned encampments from putting down roots before Memorial Day, they will grow and make the problem even more difficult to mitigate.”

“The summer has to encourage more firms to not only return to work but new ones to come in and set up shop. It has to demonstrate that we are the one West Coast major city capable of figuring out how to make visible progress on homelessness.”—Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

The proposal to move most of the homeless people downtown into sanctioned encampments in the span of a little more than three months comes in the context of an announcement last week that a group of private foundations and local corporations will donate $10 million to help kickstart a plan to move about 1,000 people living unsheltered downtown into shelter or housing elsewhere. That plan has five phases, culminating in a “hold steady” phase once most encampments are removed from downtown streets. The proposal to relocate unsheltered people from tents on the sidewalk to tents in sanctioned camps suggests one way the city might achieve its goal of an encampment-free downtown.

“It’s clear the [Harrell] administration has a policy where they do not want to have encampments in the downtown business district,” Lewis told PubliCola Monday. “It’s the prerogative of the executive to do those removals, and we need something to fill that gap.”

Marc Dones, the head of the regional homelessness authority, said Tuesday that the authority had nothing to do with the encampment proposal and that they had only heard about it through a forwarded email last week. Dones said they had asked Harrell’s office for more information about the proposal.

In his email, Lewis said removing encampments would be a necessary part of downtown recovery after two years of COVID. “The summer has to be the summer of recovery,” Lewis wrote. “It has to show people returning to work, tourists, and the local media that Seattle is capable of swiftly and compassionately managing our homelessness crisis. It has to encourage more firms to not only return to work but new ones to come in and set up shop. It has to demonstrate that we are the one West Coast major city capable of figuring out how to make visible progress on homelessness.”

Lewis told PubliCola he doesn’t consider the encampment idea a “perfect” or even a permanent solution to unsheltered homelessness downtown.  “One of the things [outreach provider] REACH says all the time is, ‘Give us something better” [to offer unsheltered people],  and this would be something better. Not something perfect and not something great, but something we could work with and improve over time.” REACH director Chloe Gale said she was unaware of the proposal on Monday.

“If it were up to me and I could wave a magic wand, we’d do a bunch of tiny house villages,” Lewis added, and pointed to Nickelsville as an example of an encampment that eventually evolved into a tiny house village. “All of our tiny house villages started out as sanctioned encampments,” Lewis said.

Bagshaw, who recently returned to Seattle after a fellowship at at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Institute, pointed to the recent removal of a longstanding encampment in Boston as an example Seattle should try to emulate. People living in the encampment, known as “Mass. and Cass,” were offered shelter, including some rooms in a local hotel, reunited with family, or simply told to leave, according to local media reports.

“They offered them two or three options and said ‘We’re going to give you a supported hotel room or a supported apartment, but “no” is not an option,'” said Bagshaw, who lives downtown and has no formal position at the city. “They said, ‘We’re trying to live in a civilized space for everybody, and it’s not okay for you to pitch a tent wherever you want and however you want and to steal to support your habit. You’re not going to be able to stay here, and we’re going to give you 72 hours to figure it out.”

Both Lewis and Bagshaw pointed to JustCARE—a service-rich program that provides temporary housing and case management for people involved in the criminal legal system—as an example of the kind of approach that works for people who have many barriers to housing, including substance use, outstanding warrants, and long-term homelessness. “JustCARE is what we need, but we can’t wait until JustCARE has 600 units,” Bagshaw said.

“Most of the folks out on the streets of downtown right now have extensive barriers that would normally result in them being screened out of group living situations. It won’t help much to invest in large scale accommodations that don’t match the situation of most of those who are actually on the street.”—Public Defender Association co-director Lisa Daugaard

In theory, people who need extensive services could be channeled into JustCARE over time. In practice, funding for JustCARE expires at the end of June, and the program is no longer taking new clients beyond the 230 it currently serves.

In his email, Lewis estimated that the encampments would cost between $800,000 and $1.2 million a year to operate, for a total of $8 million to $12 million a year, not counting capital costs. “The hardest part will be case management and services. But even there, I don’t know how daunting the numbers truly are,” Lewis wrote.” If we assume a ratio of one case manager to every 20 campers, and a maximum capacity of 600 people, the whole operation requires 30 case managers organized across our entire spectrum of providers. We should be able to manage it with a ramp up of several weeks.” Continue reading “Council Member’s Homelessness Plan Could Include 10 New Mass Encampments for Up to 600 People”

Councilmember Pushes “Seattle Is Dying” Narrative, Data Confirms Stop-and-Frisk Disparities, Someone Is Posting Fake Sweep Signs, and More

1. Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson, who owns Fremont Brewing with her husband, invited 11 business representatives to discuss their public safety concerns at her economic development committee on Wednesday. Nelson’s committee doesn’t deal with crime or homelessness and isn’t considering legislation; instead, the meeting served as a kind of open mic for business owners to trade alarming anecdotes and agree that the ultimate solution is more police.

Nelson teed up the conversation by saying Seattle is in a state of “crisis,” one that will require swift action by Mayor Bruce Harrell and City Attorney Ann Davison, who she hoped will “really put some things in place that can make a difference right now.” Last week, Harrell announced a new “hot spot” policing effort targeting high-crime areas; Davison announced she would dramatically expedite charging decisions for misdemeanors in an effort to move cases more quickly through her office.

“These issues that we’re hearing about, they are escalating,” Nelson said. “They’re intensifying, becoming more brazenly disruptive to businesses and dangerous to staff and customers. … Even having more officers on the street won’t cut it, because even before there was such a staffing shortage, there still did not seem to be enough to start addressing rising crime well before the pandemic hit.”

The panel included business owners from every council district except District 5, whose council representative, Debora Juarez, said she no longer goes to Pike Place Market downtown “unless it’s Saturday in broad daylight” because of the “safety issue[s]” there. Pike Place Market (which closes at 6) remains one of the few areas downtown that is consistently bustling and full of people—the antithesis of a high-crime area.

To a person, the panel blamed rising crime and a challenging business climate not on the global pandemic, which has decimated business districts worldwide and led to rising crime and poverty in every American city, but on the fact that there are not more visible police in Seattle’s neighborhoods.

Calls for more police (and prosecution) are standard fare when crime ticks up, but Seattle’s experience with ramped-up policing efforts—from the Stay Out of Drug Areas zones of the mid-2000s to the Nine and a Half Block Strategy of 2015—has demonstrated repeatedly that police crackdowns alone don’t reduce crime. Downtown, in particular, is less populated during the day because so many people continue to work from home; without daytime commuters as customers, it’s hard to keep a business open, and criminal activity thrives in depopulated spaces.

Even if crime could be solved (as opposed to merely shifted) by flooding the streets with cops, Seattle is struggling to hire and retain officers and has fewer officers that it did in 1970.

2. The federal monitor overseeing reforms to the Seattle Police Department released a report on Monday detailing ongoing disparities in who Seattle police officers stop and frisk, though the monitor, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, stopped short of blaming the disparities on officers’ racial biases. Since SPD began gathering data on the race of the people officers stop, frisk, and detain in 2015, the racial disparities revealed by that data have not changed much: police are more likely to stop Native American and Black people than white people. Although officers frisk white people less than any other race, they are more likely to find a weapon when frisking a white person.

In his new report, Oftelie argued that while the persistent disparities are “concerning” and contribute to public distrust of the department, the demographic data does not “prove bias by individual police officers or agencies—as they operate within the context of social factors that may contribute to disparities.”

Oftelie’s report also noted that SPD stopped fewer people in 2021 than in any other year since the department began gathering data on stops in 2015. Last year, officers stopped 4,282 people: 30 percent fewer people than in 2020, and more than 50 percent fewer than the department’s recorded high in 2018.

The sharp reduction in the number of stops reflects a combination of changes, including SPD’s shrinking ranks, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and new state laws setting stricter standards for when police can use force—including, some officers argue, grabbing someone’s arm to prevent them from walking away from a stop. In 2020, more than half of SPD’s stops did not end in an arrest or citation; Native American people were the most likely to be arrested after being stopped by police.

3. One block away from the spot where someone placed fake “no camping” and no-parking signs last year, another set of alarming fake signs has cropped up. The new signs, which are designed to look like the city’s official encampment removal notices, warn encampment residents that they must “REMOVE ALL PERSONAL PROPERTY” by 9:00am on February 9; if they haven’t left by then, the sign continues, “THE CITY WILL BE NOTIFIED AND ALL REMAINING ITEMS WILL BE REMOVED.” Unlike official notices, the signs don’t have a city seal and are laminated and attached to stakes in the ground.

A spokesman for the city confirmed that the signs were not official city notices and “there are no plans to remove the encampments at the locations listed in the notices tomorrow.” The spokesman did not know who had posted the signs.

The city’s official encampment removal schedule called for at least three other “priority site” removals this week: Prefontaine Place in Pioneer Square; Third and Yesler; and N 46th Street and Greenlake Way.

4. The Seattle Fire Department debuted a new feature of its emergency dispatch center on Tuesday afternoon: A team of nurses will join the center’s staff to field calls from people with lower-acuity medical needs, which SFD Chief Harold Scoggins says will free up dispatchers, paramedics and ambulances to focus on the most serious medical emergencies.

Scoggins said the new Nurse Navigation Program—a partnership with one of the city’s ambulance providers, American Medical Rescue—will initially take between 8,000 and 10,000 of the roughly 160,000 calls the fire department receives each year. “In many cases, this will help to divert 911 callers with non-emergency issues away from an ambulance transport to a hospital’s emergency department, and connect patients instead towards self-treatment, Urgent Care or a Telehealth appointment,” he said.

AMR paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to Seattle in 2016 for not meeting the city’s response time requirements.

Continue reading “Councilmember Pushes “Seattle Is Dying” Narrative, Data Confirms Stop-and-Frisk Disparities, Someone Is Posting Fake Sweep Signs, and More”

Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density

1. Seattle Municipal Court judges are instructing people they convict of misdemeanors to report to jail two months after their sentencing hearing, a decision related to a staffing crisis at the jails brought on by a surge of COVID-19 cases among staff and inmates in January. The judges consulted with jail administrators, defense attorneys and prosecutors from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office before deciding to temporarily stem the flow of people from the municipal court to the jail on January 14. There may be some exceptions: Defendants who were already in custody when the municipal court sentenced them to additional jail time, for example, may remain in custody.

The judges’ decision came just as the unions representing King County’s public defenders and corrections officers joined forces to raise the alarm as COVID-19 infections surged among both jail staff and inmates, overwhelming the jails’ quarantine units and placing dozens of guards on sick leave. The ensuing shortage of staff left many inmates locked in their cells for 23 or more hours a day, sometimes missing court dates and deliveries of prescription medication. The two unions have asked King County courts, along with the county executive and prosecutor’s office, to take emergency measures to reduce the jail population in response to the outbreak, albeit with little success.

The judges’ decision won’t prevent police officers from booking people into jail to await trial for a misdemeanor offense, though people facing misdemeanor charges or convicted of misdemeanors make up a relatively small portion of King County’s jail population.

2. Homeless service providers and advocates are reporting a sharp uptick in the number of encampments scheduled for sweeps with 48 hours’ notice on the grounds that they constitute “obstructions” or hazards in the public right-of-way. In addition, some encampment removals are happening outside the official list that providers receive directly from the city. Former mayor Jenny Durkan dramatically increased the pace of this type of sweep, which does not require any offers of shelter or services.

The city’s official encampment removal schedule, which does not include all sweeps, calls for three encampment removals and two RV site “cleans” in each week of February. Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

After a press conference on public safety Friday, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington told PublICola that the apparent rise in encampment removals was the city returning to normal, before the CDC’s COVID guidelines led the city to stop removing encampments. “Last year, in the last six months of the year, we removed some of the largest encampments that we’ve ever seen in city history,” Washington said. “Now the ones we have left is Woodland Park. So of course you are going to see an increase in removals, because now we’ve addressed the largest encampments. So it may appear like there’s more removals happening just randomly, but actually, it’s just getting back on track to the rhythm that we had before COVID-19.”

Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

3. Washington mentioned Friday that the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority are working closely with community groups, like the Phinney Ridge Community Council, to address conditions at Woodland Park. The encampment was one of a couple of hot topics that came up during a recent presentation by City Councilmember Dan Strauss to the Phinney council, whose members complained about feeling unsafe because of the presence of so many homeless people relatively near their houses.

At Woodland Park, the city is trying to do what amounts to a slow sweep—removing people one or two at a time as shelter becomes available while attempting to discourage new people from moving in. One way the city is doing this, Strauss said, is by creating a “by-name list” (a fancy term for: a list) of everyone living in the park; people who are not on that list because they moved in after it was created won’t get access to shelter and assistance. “It’s very important for us to have a firm list so that we are able to measure success,” Strauss said.

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The meeting didn’t get particularly rowdy, though, until the conversation turned to  legislation sponsored by state Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) that would allow very low-rise density—duplexes, triplexes, and four-unit buildings—in single-family areas like of Phinney Ridge, currently no-go zones for most renters and anyone who can’t afford the median house price of just under $1 million.

The community council, like many such groups created in the 1980s and 1990s as part of a single-family preservationist movement that persists today, is dominated by white homeowners who purchased their houses decades before Seattle’s population growth and cost of living took off in the current century. Their main talking points were based in an understanding of Seattle and its population and politics that has not noticeably evolved in 30 years: Why can’t all the density go in the places that “already have plenty of capacity to take it?” Didn’t Strauss know that neighborhoods like Phinney Ridge have already “accepted capacity way beyond the growth targets”? Why do density proponents want to eliminate all the “$650,000 starter houses” like “most of us got into our homes ages ago”?* Continue reading “Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density”

Woodland Park, Site of Seattle’s Largest Encampment, Now “Highest-Priority Site In the City”

Then-candidate Bruce Harrell at a press conference near the Woodland Park encampment in summer 2021.
Then-candidate Bruce Harrell at a press conference near the Woodland Park encampment in summer 2021.

By Erica C. Barnett

A large, longstanding encampment in Upper Woodland Park has now become “the highest-priority [encampment] site in the city,” City Councilmember Dan Strauss, whose district includes the park, told PubliCola yesterday. Strauss and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said city officials are meeting weekly with outreach providers to come up with a strategy for the encampment, which includes about 70 tents and as many as 100 people, including some who had been living in a nearby encampment the city’s Parks Department removed late last month.

The encampment is on the city’s official “priority list” for January, a designation bestowed on encampments the city is about to sweep.

Ordinarily, when an encampment is on the priority list, a group of city outreach workers called the HOPE Team goes to the site and offers the people living there whatever shelter happens to be available. Although the HOPE Team has exclusive access to some beds that are not available to other outreach providers, there are often no more than one or two beds available across the city, and those beds may not be suitable for every person living at an encampment.

Practically speaking, it would be impossible to move everyone living in even a midsize encampment into shelter in the few days the HOPE Team usually spends doing outreach before a sweep, even if the shelter that became available that week happened to be appropriate for those specific encampment residents. As a result, encampment sweeps tend to earn their name—encampment residents describe being swept from one site to another and then swept again, moving around neighborhoods in an endless round robin of sweeps.

“The mayor is … acting with a new urgency in aggressively pursuing alternative shelter options, considering a wide range of options from leasing or buying existing buildings to standing up tiny house villages.”—Jamie Housen, spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell

Strauss says the Woodland Park removal will be different. Like the recent successful effort to remove a smaller encampment at the Ballard Commons park, he said, the city will send service providers into the encampment to collect the names of everyone living there, assess their needs, and assign each person to appropriate housing or shelter as it becomes available. “Our ability to place people in shelter will depend on two things: One, throughput for people who are in shelter into affordable housing” so that existing shelter beds become available, “and then, secondly shelter expansion.”

Strauss acknowledges that the Ballard Commons was successful precisely because several brand-new shelter facilities became available all at once, creating temporary excess capacity in the shelter system so that people actually had places to go. With Woodland Park, the situation is different; it’s impossible to move people into shelter that doesn’t exist.

Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said Harrell is “acting with a new urgency in aggressively pursuing alternative shelter options, considering a wide range of options from leasing or buying existing buildings to standing up tiny house villages.” Harrell, Housen added, “is committed to ensuring progress at the site and is doing so by engaging the City with community, providers, and stakeholders in a constructive, methodical, and effective approach that drives visible change and improved outcomes for encampment residents and Woodland Park community members as quickly as possible.”

Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee said LIHI—the city’s primary tiny-house village provider—has not heard anything about a proposal for new tiny houses to shelter people living in Woodland Park. Typically, standing up a new tiny house village is a process that requires funding from the city through the budget process, which happens annually with “supplemental” budget changes every three months, followed by a request for proposals and selection process.

During a meeting of the King County Homelessness Authority’s governing board on Thursday, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the biggest challenge to standing up new shelters and tiny house villages isn’t funding but staffing. Recently, they said, “we have had shelters operate overnight shifts with a single person, which is simply not advisable.” The authority’s budget, which is primarily supplied by the city of Seattle, includes funding to expand Camp Second Chance in West Seattle.

In the meantime, Strauss said during a meeting of the Greenlake Community Council Wednesday night, the city will begin working on “short-term supports like trash mitigation and hygiene mitigation. So if you see a port-a-potty go up, or a handwashing station, or a Dumpster, this does not indicate a sanctioned encampment. It is a temporary placement. It will go up and it will go down.” The specific timeline for this process, Strauss said, will be “based on shelter capacity.”

Latest Sweep Displaces Dozens As Winter Weather Rolls In

Sign in the window of an RV slated for towing.
Sign in the window of an RV slated for towing.

By Erica C. Barnett

The first snowflakes were just starting to fall on Monday morning as dozens of workers from the city’s Parks Department, backed up by a half-dozen Seattle Police Department SUVs, descended on a small swath of land near Green Lake to remove tents, property, and garbage from an area where dozens of people have been living for the better part of a year.

The sweep at Green Lake Park was typical in most respects: Mutual aid workers chalked messages on the sidewalk—”This sweep is unconstitutional based on the Homestead Act and the Eighth Amend[ment]”—as members of the press, RV residents, and a lone city outreach worker milled around, waiting to see what would happen next. A tow truck pulled up to take the first vehicle away, while the owner of an RV a few vehicles back tried to get her battery to start.

Earlier in the morning, just one RV resident had made good on a plan concocted the previous week to try to occupy a parking lot several blocks away; by 9:30, the lot had been locked down and secured, with a Parks Department vehicle stationed at one entrance and a “CLOSED” sign blocking the other. A spokeswoman for the Parks Department confirmed that the RV was still on site, behind the locked gate, on Monday afternoon. Plans to move more RVs onto the site seemed quixotic, given the Parks Department’s swift action to shut the site down Monday.

In response to PubliCola’s questions about the removal, a spokesman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, Anthony Derrick, said the city used the same “intensified outreach and engagement efforts” at the encampment next to Green Lake as it did with encampments at Broadview Thomson K-8 School and the Ballard Commons.

“For several months, the Human Service Department’s HOPE Team has been coordinating outreach with the Urban League, to engage all those residing in the encampment with meaningful offers of shelter,” Derrick said. “This work has been aided by additional resource coordination in the area by REACH, Seattle Indian Center, Aurora Commons, and the Scofflaw Mitigation Team.”

The city refused for months to do any kind of outreach or engagement at Broadview Thomson, because the land—adjacent to a city park—was technically owned by the school district; for months, and until shortly before the removal, Durkan told the school district that the encampment was not the city’s problem and even suggested the district should dip into its reserves to create its own human services department.

RVs lined up on West Green Lake Way.
RVs lined up on West Green Lake Way.

What distinguished two recent removals from other sweeps was that a large number of desirable shelter beds and a handful of housing units came online all at once, putting the city in the highly unusual position of being able to offer people options that they actually wanted.

Accounts from homeless outreach groups contradicted the Durkan Administration’s characterization of the efforts at Green Lake. A representative from REACH said the group had not, in fact, done intensive outreach at the encampment. And a member of the Scofflaw Mitigation Team—a small group whose city funding Durkan tried to eliminate during both of the two most recent budgets—said last week that the first indication the team had that a sweep was imminent was when a client living in one of the RVs called to tell her the city was placing “No Parking” signs between the vehicles.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department said that the city had referred 18 people to shelter from the area since September. According to Derrick, those including 10 who received referrals to tiny house villages or a new men’s shelter in the Central District. A shelter “referral” does not mean that a person actually checks in to a shelter or stays there; it simply means that a person agreed to go to a shelter and that a shelter bed was available.

In fact, as PubliCola reported last week, what distinguished those other two removals from other sweeps was that a large number of desirable shelter beds and a handful of housing units came online all at once, putting the city in the highly unusual position of being able to offer people options that they actually wanted.

City Councilmember Dan Strauss, who represents the Green Lake area and helped coordinate the lengthy outreach process that preceded the closure of the Ballard Commons earlier this month, said the reason the Commons removal was successful was “because we coordinated efforts between community leaders, city departments, outreach workers, and my office.” This, Strauss noted, “was not the approach used to address Green Lake.”

Volunteers who’ve been on site for months, including the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, as well as people living in the park themselves, say that very few people have actually moved into shelter as the result of the city’s formal outreach efforts, which they describe as recent, occasional, and sporadic.

A no-parking sign indicates the remaining RVs are parked illegally.
A no-parking sign indicates the remaining RVs are parked illegally.

Most have relocated from the triangle of land the city swept on Monday into a large, sprawling tent city about one minute’s walk away, which—rumor has it (city officials would not confirm)—the city plans to leave alone until mid-January. Walking around the encampment on Friday, Bruce Drager, a neighborhood resident who has been doing volunteer outreach at the encampment every day for months, estimated that several hundred residents were still living in the uphill site site.

“About six months ago, we went from a couple of dozen folks to—at one point, there was probably 300 or 400 people total,” Drager said. “And you know why? They were coming from the other sweeps. Most of these people that live here have stories about the five, six, seven sweeps they’ve already been through, and each time they lose everything, and they’re worse off on the other end of it.”

Walking around the encampment on Friday—both the lower encampment the city is calling “Green Lake” and the upper one designated “Woodland Park”—several encampment residents said they would be willing to go inside if the city offered them a place that met their needs. One man said two people tried to get into a tiny house by going down to the lower encampment, but were turned away because they “didn’t live there,” and thus weren’t eligible for services. Another camper said she has claustrophobia and would accept a hotel room, but not a tiny house.

By Monday, all of the tents in the smaller, lower encampment were gone, and the only remaining residents were the people living in RVs. The city offers shelter beds to people living in their vehicles, too, but it’s a hard sell—giving up your vehicle to move into a shelter, even if you win the lottery and get a tiny house or a private room, means abandoning almost all of your possessions, your privacy, and—if your vehicle is running—your transportation.

“People’s personal possessions are in these motor homes,” said James Wlos, a 21-year Seattle resident who has lived in his van for the last 10 years. For Wlos, losing his van would mean losing his mobility and his ability to go to his part-time job. “Any time I’m parked on the street, I’m in danger of losing what I’ve got,” he said. “I owe so much to Lincoln Towing,” the company the city contracts to tow and store impounded vehicles, “I’ll never pay it all. I have no credit. I can’t get credit to buy a hamburger.”

Seattle Parks Department encampment removal crew clusters near trash cans at Green Lake.
Seattle Parks Department encampment removal crew clusters near trash cans at Green Lake.

In a statement, Mayor Durkan’s office said, “In recent months, Mayor Durkan, outreach providers and City employees have been working to bring hundreds of new 24/7 shelter spaces online and offer safer spaces in order to address the city’s largest encampments. Over the past several weeks, the City has successfully connected hundreds of individuals with a path to housing in key locations like City Hall Park, Ballard Commons, University Playground, and Pioneer Park, and will continue to move people indoors as more shelter comes online.”

Derrick, the Durkan spokesman, said the city has opened “530 new shelter units” since the beginning of the pandemic. But that number is both inadequate to shelter the thousands of people living outdoors in Seattle and misleading, because it includes nearly 200 rooms in two temporary hotel-based shelters that will close down in January.

The Durkan administration ends in less than two weeks. For the past four years, administration officials have put a consistently sunny spin on the city’s response to homelessness; no matter how dire or dispiriting the numbers, for Team Durkan, the news has always been good and getting better. Last week, King County released new numbers suggesting that there are 45,000 or more people experiencing homelessness in King County. In that context, it’s hard to see 18 shelter referrals over three months as much more than a rounding error.

SPD Hasn’t Fully Complied With 2017 Anti-Bias Law; Durkan Says City Has Never Done “Sweeps”; Meth Cleanup Further Delays Shelter Opening

1. In several recent campaign debates, mayoral candidate (and 12-year city council veteran) Bruce Harrell has pointed to a 2017 bias-free policing ordinance he sponsored as proof of his commitment to police reform. During a debate hosted by the ACLU of Washington last week, his opponent, current city council president Lorena González, countered that the ordinance—which requires anti the Seattle Police Department to conduct anti-bias training and collect data about stops and detentions—didn’t “result in a less-biased police force.”

One important detail neither candidate mentioned is that SPD still hasn’t fulfilled all the requirements of the four-year-old law. In a response to a query from City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, interim SPD chief Adrian Diaz informed the council in July that his department hasn’t been collecting data from all traffic stops, as the 2017 law requires. Instead, his department has only collected data on “Terry stops” (also known as stop-and-frisks), in which an officer detains someone who they suspect of “criminal activity.” SPD classifies roughly 70 percent of all stops and detentions as Terry stops.

Data released by SPD in January revealed that Indigenous people are nine times more likely to be stopped by police than white people, and Black people seven times more likely. In contrast, officers were more likely to find a weapon on a white person during a Terry stop than on people from any other racial or ethnic group.

SPD has not collected data on other common types of stops, including traffic citations. The four-year delay in following the letter of the law, Diaz wrote, came down to outdated reporting protocols: According to Diaz, SPD’s traffic unit only keeps paper records of their stops, warnings and citations. As a result, Diaz wrote, the department “does not have a complete count or description” of the citations and warnings its officers have issued, nor does it have complete demographic data about the people they’ve stopped.

According to Diaz, SPD was able to find a “work-around” to collect data about Terry stops, as required by the federal consent decree but not for other types of stops, leaving the department in compliance with the federal court’s orders but out of compliance with a city law. For now, Diaz said the department pieced together an imperfect system for manually collecting data from paper records, supplemented by the limited data about traffic stops collected by the Seattle Municipal Court. Based on that “imperfect data,” SPD estimates that it has conducted 52,764 traffic stops since 2015. According to that incomplete data, only 17 percent of drivers stopped were Black—likely an undercount, given that Black people account for roughly 30 percent of the department’s Terry stops.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who has led the push to get SPD to comply with the data collection and reporting requirements of the 2017 ordinance, noted that the council asked the department in November 2020 to produce data on all traffic stops by July of this year. If SPD has made any progress toward that goal, “we don’t have evidence of that, because we still haven’t received a report on the data,” Herbold said. SPD has not yet responded to Herbold’s or PubliCola’s inquiries about when the department began to work toward full compliance with the 2017 law.

2. With the mayoral election just weeks away, outgoing Mayor Jenny Durkan asserted at a recent homelessness town hall discussion that, “in four years, we’ve never really done a sweep,” because the city does outreach and offers “housing” before it removes encampments. (The HOPE team offers shelter, not housing.)

The counterfactual comment prompted panelist Tiffani McCoy, the advocacy director at Real Change, to describe several stories she has heard from Real Change vendors “of all of their possessions being taken from them forcibly during a sweep.”

“The idea that hasn’t happened in four years is absolutely astonishing to me,” McCoy said.

Durkan also repeated her talking point that most people are homeless in Seattle became homeless somewhere else—a claim Durkan has made many times over the past year to suggest that Seattle pays more than its fair share to address regional homelessness. “If you look at what’s being spent right now in an emergency shelter, Seattle is the lion’s share, and if you look at the data, about six out of 10 of the people that we are serving, their last place to have stable housing was outside of Seattle,” Durkan said. “They became homeless somewhere else but because we have the services here,” they migrated to Seattle.

The number uses comes from the county’s internal Homelessness Management Information System, which is only one of many contradictory data points about where people lived before they became homeless; other sources, including surveys done as part of the annual Point in Time County in January, have concluded that a large majority of people who are homeless in King County became homeless here and did not move here from somewhere else—exactly the opposite of the mayor’s talking point.

3. A shelter on Lower Queen Anne that was supposed to reopen last summer, providing shelter for about 40 people displaced from a temporary COVID shelter at Seattle Center, now faces another setback: Squatters who moved into the vacant building smoked copious amounts of meth, leaving dangerous residue on every surface. A spokeswoman for Seattle City Light, which owns the building, confirmed that the city hired decontamination specialists to remove drug residue, and said the contractor “completed decontamination work” earlier this month. Continue reading “SPD Hasn’t Fully Complied With 2017 Anti-Bias Law; Durkan Says City Has Never Done “Sweeps”; Meth Cleanup Further Delays Shelter Opening”

City Expected Encampment on School District Property After Sweeping Nearby Park

A forest of angry hands rises in the Broadview-Thomson K-8 School cafeteria.

By Erica C. Barnett

During an often rowdy public forum in the cafeteria of Broadview-Thomson K-8 school last week, Seattle Public Schools deputy director Rob Gannon said the school district is working slowly toward a plan for moving more than 50 unsheltered people off school district-owned property behind the North Seattle school. The city of Seattle has refused to assist the school district in sheltering or housing people living on the property, and the district has turned to a small nonprofit called Anything Helps, with the goal of getting everyone off the site by September. 

“We got caught in a difficult situation and … with a rather large encampment and no resources to be able to address how to return that area to its original intended purpose or how to respond to the needs of the people living on that property,” Gannon said. “For the past two months, we have been actively seeking partners to help us address that situation, and only recently have we started to find traction to begin to help people move off that property.”

Emails from city officials show the city knew that people would move onto school property from the nearby Bitter Lake Playfield, which was previously the site of a small encampment, if the city made them leave the park.

Although the school district property is directly adjacent to city-owned Bitter Lake Playfield and has historically been maintained by the Parks Department, Mayor Jenny Durkan has said that Seattle bears no responsibility for the encampment because it isn’t on city property. In May, Durkan suggested that if the chronically underfunded district wants the encampment gone, it should “stand up” its own human services system.

Durkan has repeatedly suggested that people living behind the elementary school made a conscious decision to move away from property owned by the city, and have therefore chosen to be beyond the city’s help. But emails from city officials obtained through a records request show the city knew that people would move onto school property from the nearby Bitter Lake Playfield, which was previously the site of a small encampment, if the city made them leave the park.

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In an email on July 8, 2020, for example, a recreation specialist with the city’s Parks Department told a school facilities staffer that the department would be removing and replacing lights in the park and would be asking “several campers in the area” to “relocate during construction.” Those “campers,” the parks staffer wrote, “may move elsewhere or around the SW corner of [Bitter Lake Lake which I understand is SPS property with Broadview Thompson [sic] School up the hill to the west. We never know what we will get when requesting a move of their ‘home.'”

Liza Rankin, the school board director for North Seattle, said that “seeing these communications now from a year ago, it’s really frustrating to know that had there been a prompt and appropriate response instead of sweeping people from the park at that point—offering services or shelter or even just an alternative location— this whole thing could have been avoided.”

After the city told the people living at the playfield that they had to leave, they did exactly what the city predicted, setting up their tents on the school district property a few feet away. “As we’ve seen where other encampments have sprung up, it’s not random,” Rankin said. “People are setting up tents where there’s a community center nearby, where there’s transportation nearby, where there’s other resources.” If the city hadn’t “shooed away” people camping on park property, or if they’d responded to the encampment behind the school when it was small, Rankin continued, “I think there would still be an encampment at Bitter Lake— I just think it would probably be by the community center” and not next to the school. Continue reading “City Expected Encampment on School District Property After Sweeping Nearby Park”

Homeless Service Providers, City Employees Told to Use Encrypted App

By Erica C. Barnett

One of the members of the HOPE team, a Human Services Department-led group that coordinates outreach work at encampments, directed city staff and nonprofit outreach contractors earlier this year to stop using text messages, which are subject to public disclosure, to communicate about homeless encampment outreach and removals.

Instead, the HOPE team member, Christina Korpi, wrote in an April 8 email, staffers should use Signal, an encrypted private messaging app commonly used by activists, journalists, and others who want to shield their messages so that they can’t be read by anyone except the intended recipient. Signal can be set to auto-delete messages on both the sender and the recipient’s phones, making them impossible to recover.

In Korpi’s email, which went out to dozens of outreach providers and at least eight city staffers, including the members of the HOPE team, she wrote, “We are planning to start using the Signal app instead of text message thread for field communications. Please download this app on your phone, or let me know if you have concerns or questions about using it.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan has come under fire for deleting text messages and failing to disclose communications that are subject to the state Public Disclosure Act, a potential felony. Unlike using ordinary text messages, sending messages on Signal and other encrypted private messaging apps are effectively exempt from public disclosure.

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A spokesman for the Human Services Department, Kevin Mundt, said it was actually an outreach provider who first suggested using Signal as an alternative to the text message chains the city and outreach providers have traditionally used to coordinate shelter and services referrals from encampments, which Mundt said is currently limited to 20 users. (Signal group texts can include up to 1,000 users). Regardless, the fact remains that a city staffer directed both nonprofit service providers and other city employees to download and use Signal to communicate with each other in the field.

The city of Seattle’s IT department does not allow employees to install Signal on their phones, according to a spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office. “Downloading mobile messaging services for encrypted messaging is not approved for City devices,” the spokesman said. The state Public Records Act requires public officials and government agencies to retain all records that are not specifically exempt from disclosure under the law.

According to Mundt, after consulting with the IT department, HSD decided not to use Signal for “case conferencing, the shelter referral process or any related City business “due to the need to maintain records for public disclosure.” Instead, they are using the Microsoft Teams app. Case conferencing is the process by which service providers connect their clients to housing based, among other criteria, on their “vulnerability,” which includes criteria like age, length of homelessness, and disability. Continue reading “Homeless Service Providers, City Employees Told to Use Encrypted App”

Three Libraries to Cut Restroom Hours, Protesters Halt Removal of Garden at Jimi Hendrix Park

The Northwest African American Museum and Jimi Hendrix Park on Thursday. Photo by Paul Kiefer

1. Restrooms at three Seattle Public Library branches—Ballard, Capitol Hill, and the Central Library—that have will be open to the public fewer hours beginning July 21, a loss of access that will largely impact people experiencing homelessness in those neighborhoods. Most library branches have reopened on a limited basis, in many cases just two or three days a week.

In response to widespread restroom closures during the pandemic, the city’s library system opened restrooms at five branches from 10am to 6pm seven days a week last April; the goal, according to Mayor Jenny Durkan, was to provide “additional vital hygiene resources to people living unsheltered.” Now, restrooms will only be available when the libraries themselves are open; currently, all three libraries are open limited hours, meaning that restrooms will be closed at times when they used to be available.

The parks department confirmed that police do routinely accompany them to encampment removals “any time there are safety concerns during their work.”

The impact will be the greatest at the Capitol Hill branch, where people will no longer have access to restrooms on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday mornings from 10 to noon. In Ballard and at the central library downtown, restrooms will now be closed on Sundays and Mondays. 

Library spokeswoman Laura Gentry said daily access to library restrooms “was always meant to be a temporary standalone service until we could provide more restroom access through reopening libraries. Now that city and state COVID-19 restrictions are being dropped, more restroom options have become available to the public, and many more Seattle libraries are reopened, we believe it’s important to focus Library staffing efforts on reopening the last of our closed neighborhood libraries and supporting pre-pandemic service levels and hours.”

To library users who haven’t been able to go to their local branches in more than a year, accessing local libraries even two days a week will be an improvement. But to people living unsheltered who rely on regular restroom access at the three branches where hours are shrinking, the existence of open restrooms in other neighborhoods is surely a cold comfort.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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2. Signs that appeared around Jimi Hendrix Park near the Northwest African American Museum announcing that the city planned to come in and remove any belongings that remained on site yesterday morning had nothing to do with the longstanding protest encampment in front of the museum, a Seattle Parks Department spokeswoman said Thursday. Protesters showed up at the museum and blocked the entrance after word went around on social media about a potential sweep.

Instead, Parks showed up Thursday morning to dismantle a garden shed and remove a garden planted by Black Star Farmers, a group of land activists who established their first garden in Cal Anderson Park during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Continue reading “Three Libraries to Cut Restroom Hours, Protesters Halt Removal of Garden at Jimi Hendrix Park”

Residents Ask City to Help Unsheltered Neighbors; City Responds by Sweeping Park

By Erica C. Barnett

Olga Park, a small swatch of green space near Ravenna and Cowen Parks in Northeast Seattle, has been the site of a fairly small but disruptive encampment for about a year. Neighbors in nearby apartments and houses have complained frequently to the city about noise, drug use, and hostile treatment from the people living there—typical points of friction between housed and homeless people in densely populated residential areas.

But many in the neighborhood have also worked to find alternatives that wouldn’t simply displace the encampment residents, meeting with outreach workers from REACH who have developed relationships with people living in the park to discuss options that would keep them in the neighborhood. “My ideal approach so far, which we’ve been advocating with the city to do, is something like the JustCARE program, where people move into hotels on a voluntary basis,” Teresa Barker, from the Ravenna-Cowen Community Alliance, said.

Those conversations came to an abrupt halt last week, when the city decided to sweep the encampment after a man who lived elsewhere shot and killed an encampment resident. Those living in the park got about two days’ notice; two accepted referrals to the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown, and one got a referral to Otto’s Place, a 100-bed shelter in Pioneer Square. The rest moved elsewhere, leaving behind tents, property, and trash for the Parks Department to haul away.

The tiny number of people who “accepted” shelter referrals in the days leading up to the sweep “just goes to show that the person-centered, relationship building approach works better than the kneejerk response,” Maureen Ewing, director of the University Heights Center, said.

Neighbors who’ve been asking the city to address the encampment for months were relieved that it’s gone, but said they also understand that the city isn’t solving anything by moving traumatized people from place to place. The tiny number of people who “accepted” shelter referrals in the days leading up to the sweep “just goes to show that the person-centered, relationship building approach works better than the kneejerk response,” Maureen Ewing, director of the nearby University Heights Center, said. “It’s unfortunate that we wait to drop the hammer and force people out when they already traumatized by the murder.” 

Both Ewing and Barker said the city needed to do something about the encampment; both pointed out numerous examples of aggressive behavior and dangerous incidents, including a large fire, screaming fights, verbal threats, and a man who climbed 40 feet up a tree and wouldn’t come down. But they both said that most of the neighborhood wanted the city to provide alternatives that would actually work for the encampment residents, rather than a standard-issue sweep, in which people are offered whatever shelter happens to be available at the moment.

I think individuals who are living in homes are conflicted, because they care about the well-being of the people living there but they also care about the impact of  the impact of the people living there on the neighborhood.” —Theresa Barker, Ravenna-Cowen Community Alliance.

I think individuals who are living in homes are conflicted, because they care about the well-being of the people living there but they also care about the impact of  the impact of the people living there on the neighborhood,” Barker said. “The challenge is that in a few weeks we’ll see them back—if not at that site, they may be down the street or at the playground or playfield, with even more defense mechanisms because of the trauma that just happened to them.” Continue reading “Residents Ask City to Help Unsheltered Neighbors; City Responds by Sweeping Park”