Over the first eight months of 2018, the city’s Navigation Team—a group of cops, human service providers, and other outreach workers who remove encampments the city deems unfit for human habitation—has steadily increased the number of unauthorized encampments they remove from hillsides, parks, and under bridges across the city, according to weekly Navigation Team reports that I obtained from the city and compiled into a searchable spreadsheet. Between January and August of this year, the pace of encampment removals accelerated from fewer than three a week to nearly six a week, meaning that the Navigation Team has roughly doubled the pace of sweeps since the beginning of this year. These numbers do not include removals of encampments or tents that team members deemed an imminent safety hazard, which can be removed without the usual 72-hour notice and are not included in the Navigation Team’s weekly reports.
Note: The city’s data does not specify the exact dates on which each encampment was removed, only the week in which it happened, so that rolling two-month average includes a small amount of bleedover from weeks that included days from two different months. The steady rise in encampment removals is represented by the trendline on the graph.This represents more than just an overall increase since 2017; the city is doing more sweeps, and it is increasing the number of sweeps faster than it did last year, when the pace of encampment removals grew both minimally and slowly. Between August and December of last year, for example, the average number of weekly encampment removals increased from about 2.5 to a little less than 3, using a rolling monthly average.
Rules established during last year’s city budget negotiations say that the Navigation Team is only supposed to force people to leave an encampment if they are violating a specific list of rules, which bar things like illegal activity other than drug use, camping near schools or facilities for the elderly, or creating an active health hazard for encampment residents or the surrounding community. The council also mandated that the Navigation Team start making weekly reports on encampment removals.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and the city’s Human Services Department responded to a list of detailed questions about the apparent acceleration of encampment removals, how the pace of removals compares on a monthly basis to last year’s numbers, the geographic locations of encampment removals, and the process by which encampments are targeted for removal by directing me to several posts on the city’s homelessness response blog, which consisted of announcements about tiny house villages, the amount of trash and syringes the city has removed, and Durkan’s plan to increase shelter beds. The Human Services Department followed up (and responded to my list of questions) by sending a copy of an upcoming blog post touting the work of the Navigation Team. The post acknowledges the overall increase in encampment removals between 2017 and 2018, and reads, in part, “Since launching in February of 2017, the Navigation Team has removed a total of 409 unsanctioned encampments. Of these encampments, 271 were given advance notice with repeated outreach including offers of service, storage of possessions, and shelter and 138 of the total encampments removed either posed an obstruction to public use, were located within the City’s designated emphasis areas, or were considered especially hazardous to public health and safety.”
The fact that garbage piles up at encampments is in many respects a product of official city policies. As the city council’s civil rights committee learned last week, Seattle Public Utilities has a pilot program to pick up garbage at just 10 encampments at a time citywide—a tiny fraction of the hundreds of small and large encampments that exist around the city.
In most cases, the Navigation Team reported that they had to remove an encampment because of garbage and waste buildup that was creating a health hazard for people living in the encampment. Of more than 150 encampment removal reports the Navigation Team has filed so far this year, only nine do not cite the presence of trash or human waste among the reasons the encampment needed to be removed.
However, the fact that garbage piles up at encampments is in many respects a product of official city policies. As the city council’s civil rights committee learned last week, Seattle Public Utilities has a pilot program to pick up garbage at just 10 encampments at a time citywide—a tiny fraction of the hundreds of small and large encampments that exist around the city. Between January 2017 and July of this year, according to the Navigation Team’s most recent report, the pilot program has only served 28 encampments citywide, collecting about 292 tons of trash.
Council member Mike O’Brien pressed the issue last week, asking SPU solid waste director Ken Snipes whether the city’s policy is to “let the garbage accumulate” at encampments where trash piles up and goes uncollected by the city. The response, from both SPU and Navigation Team leaders Jackie St. Louis, was that the city encourages people at the pilot sites to participate in the program but does not emphasize trash cleanup anywhere else, beyond an on-call pickup program that allows encampment residents to put trash in bags on their own and call the city to come pick it up.
“We have, in some cases, gone to sites [with accumulated trash] where we’ve cleaned up around individuals and allowed folks to stay there,” St. Louis said, but “that’s not happening in great frequency, because, again, our priority is to help individuals get along the path to getting housed. … If the Navigation Team can get the residents to pick up the trash, the on-call services would be the tool for doing that.”
Thanks to an infusion of $500,000 from the state, the Navigation Team will soon add eight new members—a mix, according to Durkan spokeswoman Stephanie Formas, of “officers, outreach workers and data administrators,” plus the addition of former Finance and Administrative Services director Fred Podesta.