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.
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.”