Tag: MDARs

City’s Primary Tool for Sweeping Encampments Without Notice Ruled Unconstitutional

Two after-the-fact notices after recent back-to-back sweeps in Occidental Park

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Superior Court Judge David Keenan ruled against the city of Seattle this week in a case brought by two unsheltered Seattle residents, Bobby Kitcheon and Candace Ream, whose tents were repeatedly swept by the city without notice.

In his ruling, Keenan found that although the city has the right to remove tents and other items without notice in some circumstances—for example, if they pose an imminent safety risk or completely block a sidewalk—the city has used an overbroad definition of “obstruction” to unconstitutionally invade people’s homes, destroy their property, and move them from place to place without offering shelter or other services. This invasion of privacy, Keenan wrote, is “no different than if one returned to their single-family stick-built house in any Seattle neighborhood after a personal errand to find that it had vanished.”

“Denying [the plaintiffs] any protected privacy in their homes would be yet one more permission slip to consider them not fully human,” Keenan added.

The ruling could force Seattle to narrow its rules for encampment removals so that they only apply to actual obstructions. (The city provides notice, information about available shelter beds, and property storage for some encampment removals, but those aren’t at issue in this lawsuit.)

“Denying [the plaintiffs] any protected privacy in their homes would be yet one more permission slip to consider them not fully human.”

Under rules established in 2017, the city can remove any “people, tents, personal property, garbage, debris or other objects related to an encampment” if those items are in a public park or on the sidewalk, on the grounds that they inherently constitute an “obstruction” to other people’s use of that public space. The city has routinely used this rule to justify sweeping encampments whether or not they actually obstruct anything—such as a handful of tents located in a secluded, heavily forested area of a public park.

“Since the definition was expanded in 2017, there has been a dramatic increase in obstruction removals, versus encampment removals that were subject to advance notice,” said Jazmyn Clark, director of the ACLU-WA’s Smart Justice Policy Program.

Removals that rely on this overbroad definition of “obstruction” constitute “cruel punishment” under the Washington state constitution, Keenan wrote, “because that definition allows the City to move unhoused people who are not actual obstructions, without offering unhoused people shelter.”

“There were circumstances in which unhoused folks would leave to, say, attend a doctor’s appointment, come back, and their entire home is just gone,” Clark said. “That is so disruptive and destabilizing— and then to have that practice continue over and over again; it just continually harms the folks that are most vulnerable because they have such limited resources to try to be able to start fresh.”

The case involved two unsheltered people who repeatedly lost all their belongings during no-notice sweeps. One of the plaintiffs, Bobby Kitcheon, described going through at least eight sweeps in less than four months, losing his wedding ring, his work boots, family heirlooms, and medication,  along with the tent and camping equipment he shared with his wife. Kitcheon said losing his work boots and equipment made it impossible for him to work, and that he and his wife now “feel like they have to be on constant alert and wake up every time someone walks by their home for fear that it is the City about to threaten them with arrest and destroy their property,” according to the lawsuit.

Keenan’s summary judgment is not the end of the road for the lawsuit, which is currently scheduled for trial in September. City Attorney Ann Davison could also choose to appeal the summary judgment ruling. In response to questions, a spokesperson for Davison’s office said, “at this point, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office is evaluating next steps.”

As Summer Approaches, Encampment Sweeps Ramp Up

By Erica C. Barnett

As summer approaches, the city has accelerated the pace of homeless encampment removals, which declined dramatically during the pandemic thanks in part to public health guidelines that cautioned against moving people from place to place.

But now that many people are vaccinated and students are returning to school, notices of impending encampment removals are starting to show up again in parks and other public spaces around the city. The Parks Department, which is in charge of removing most homeless encampments after the dissolution of the Navigation Team, will post notices like the one above at seven “high-priority” encampments this week. If people are still on site on the day of a posted removal, the department can remove their property, including tents and survival gear. The encampments are:

Madrona Park (Madrona)

Albert Davis Park (Lake City)

Second Ave. Extension (Pioneer Square)

Hubble Place/Convention Center (Downtown)

Amy Yee Tennis Center (Mt. Baker)

Broadway Hill Park (N. Capitol Hill)

8th and King St. (Pioneer Square)

The city refers to these sweeps as “MDAR removals,” a reference to the multi-department administrative rules that describe how and when the city can remove encampments. Generally, the city justifies such sweeps by saying an encampment is obstructing the use of a public space or poses a danger to its residents or the surrounding community. For example, the city recently removed a large encampment in Miller Park on Capitol Hill, arguing that the homeless residents posed a danger to middle-school children returning to school nearby and were preventing youth sports leagues from using using the park.

We have asked the Parks Department and Mayor Durkan’s office why they chose these specific encampments for removals and will update this post when we hear back.

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When the city decides to “prioritize” an encampment for removal, the Human Services Department’s HOPE team notifies outreach workers who work to connect people living there to shelter and services. Two days before a sweep, city staffers post a sign announcing the time and date when everyone has to leave a location.

A persistent problem with this approach, going back to the days when the HOPE Team was known as the Navigation Team and included a large contingent of police, is that people often mistrust city government and don’t want to move into shelter, which is often a poor fit for people with complex mental health issues or those who simply prefer the privacy, autonomy, and community an encampment provides, however tenuously. Lately, the city has been referring some encampment residents to the Executive Pacific Hotel, where the Low-Income Housing Institute has 139 shelter rooms.

On the day of a removal, cleanup crews from the city’s Parks Department, who are not outreach workers, in remove any tents, trash, come through to remove any tents, trash, or possessions that remain. Nonprofit outreach workers and HOPE team members, according to Durkan spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, also show up to offer shelter referrals on the day encampments are removed; “for instance,” she said, “11 referrals to shelter were made at Gilman Playground last week, with transportation assistance also being provided.”

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