Afternoon Crank: Opportunistic Dumping, Unredacted Documents

Image via city of Seattle

1. Every week, the city provides reports showing which encampments the Navigation Team—a group of police and outreach workers that removes unauthorized encampments—plans to clear out in the next five days, including the number of encampments on the list that constitute “obstructions,” a designation that exempts their removal from the usual notice and outreach requirements. (As I reported last week, the team now spends the overwhelming majority of its time in the field removing such “obstruction” encampments.)

In those reports, one phrase appears again and again as a justification for encampment removals: “Large amounts of garbage present on site.”

The problem of garbage pileups at encampments is undeniable—anyone who walks, rides, or drives by one of the city’s highly visible tent cities has seen them—but is it fair to pin the garbage problem entirely on the homeless population? More to the point, if the city is using garbage as one of the justifications for clearing encampments without providing even 72 hours’ notice, does the city know how much of the problem is caused by homeless people dumping trash, and how much is caused by housed people dumping their unwanted stuff in places where they know they’re unlikely to be caught?

Is it really possible that each of a few hundred homeless people living in encampments accounted for more than five times as much waste per person than people living in houses and apartments?

These questions came up for me recently when I was reading the Navigation Team’s most recent quarterly report, which noted that SPU had picked up 335 tons of trash at the 71 encampments it removed in the first quarter of  2019. Those 71 encampments, according to the report, included a total of 731 unduplicated individuals. Doing the math, the report implies that each of those homeless individuals produced about 0.46 tons of trash in the 3-month period accounted for by the report. (Those 335 tons do not include trash picked up by a contractor through SPU’s pilot “purple bag” trash pickup program, which disposes of trash collected at a small number of unauthorized encampment sites.)

By comparison, Seattle Public Utilities’ 652,000 residential customers generated a total of 60,934 tons of garbage in that same period, or about 0.09 tons per person. How can that be? Is it really possible that each of a few hundred homeless people living in encampments accounted for more than five times as much waste per person than people living in houses and apartments?

Local right-wing media would have you believe that the answer is yes; a homeless person, who may literally be digging clothes and food out of other people’s trash, somehow produces more waste than you or me, with our Amazon orders and boxes of discarded takeout and boxes of books Kondo’d to the recycling bin.

But the answer is much more straightforward: Housed people (and construction contractors) use homeless encampments as their dumping grounds. “During encampment cleans, larger items including wood (used as shelter), appliances, generators, propane tanks, car parts and bikes are frequently removed in addition to the trash,” says Sabrina Register, a spokeswoman for SPU. SPU refers to this practice as “opportunistic illegal dumping,” and Register says it often includes items like “couches, rugs and mattresses” from the homes of people who choose to dump those items at encampments rather than pay SPU to pick them up. SPU doesn’t distinguish between these two figurative piles of trash; rather, the couches and countertops and mattresses and toilets all go into the same pile that the city uses to justify removing encampments with no warning, and that conservative commentators use to justify calls for ramping up crackdowns on homeless people in general.

Given how misleading the city’s “tons of garbage” measure turns out to be, perhaps it’s time for the Navigation Team to retire those numbers from its quarterly reports—or for SPU to start differentiating between old bathtubs dumped by remodeling homeowners and sleeping bags left behind by homeless people when they’re told to move along.

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2. The city of Seattle’s Human Services Department has finally released a set of mostly unredacted documents about the scuttled plan to locate a secure parking lot for people living in their cars near Genesee Park in Southeast Seattle. I requested the documents as part of my reporting on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to abandon plans for the parking lot, whose opening date was moved back repeatedly, most recently to sometime in March. The city initially released a set of heavily redacted documents, claiming that they were exempt from disclosure under a “deliberative process” exemption to the state Public Records Act; after I filed multiple challenges, including a request for review by the state attorney general’s office, HSD released less-redacted versions of the documents.

The city initially provided a set of highly redacted documents in response to a records request I filed back in April seeking information about how the mayor made the decision to reject plans for the Genesee location. The Low-Income Housing Institute had signed a contract to operate and provide security for the lot, which was initially supposed to open on February 28, but Mayor Durkan scuttled that plan after neighbors, led by Mount Baker neighborhood activist and District 3 city council candidate Pat Murakami, raised objections to the plan, which they called another example of dumping undesirable projects on Southeast Seattle.

As I noted in my story earlier this month, Durkan’s decision came after months of groundwork by HSD, which had been working on plans for a safe parking lot since at least last October, and had narrowed down potential sites to a short list that included the Genesee Park location by early January at the latest. Nonetheless, Durkan’s office said she had been briefed on the options for the very first time at the end of February, one day before the lot was initially scheduled to open—and a couple of days after the first critical news reports hit local TV airwaves.

The unredacted documents (communications plan; neighborhood flyer; outreach timeline) provide additional details about the scuttled pilot, including how long it was supposed to last (through December 2019); how the city narrowed down the list of sites (“The site identification focused on areas of the city where gentrification and housing displacement has been an issue”); and how the city will prevent “the behavioral problems” associated with RV residents (no RVs would be allowed). The materials place a great deal of emphasis on the idea that people living in their cars (as opposed to RVs) are regular, upstanding citizens who’ve simply fallen on hard times. “This program is designed for adults and students that drive to work or go to school but need a safe parking space to sleep while trying to find permanent housing,” a community flyer stressed. Similarly, the communications plan for the proposal highlights the fact that the lot would have been for people living in cars, not RVs:

According to the most recent Point in Time Count of people experiencing homelessness in King County, about 3,372 people were living in their vehicles, an increase of percent over the 2017 count. People living in vehicles represented more than half of the county’s unsheltered homeless population. Of those 3,372 people, about a third were living in cars; more than half were in RVs.

 

6 thoughts on “Afternoon Crank: Opportunistic Dumping, Unredacted Documents”

  1. I’m sure there are some homeowners or unregulated contractors that don’t want to take the time to haul their waste from a home remodel project to the landfill. I am sure there are unregulated small business operators that a responsible individual may contact to haul unwanted items to a landfill and these unscrupulous individuals will take the cheap and easy way out and dump the load at an already trash filled site. I am sure there are renters that will also do the same thing when they move on if they don’t just dump their unwanted remains on the parking strip. I am sure landlords could tell you how much they spend hauling away abandoned items. Most individuals aren’t collecting piles of propane tanks or grocery carts or water logged tents and sleeping bags or piles of discarded bike parts or hundreds of used needles. SPU has no idea exactly where this trash comes from. They can speculate how much comes from homeowners dumping their unwanted bathtubs just as well as they can speculate how much of it comes from people occupying unsanctioned encampments. I guess we could continue to point fingers and make wild ass guesses as to how much of this waste comes from different groups of people or just accept the fact that the trash needs to be dealt with. It is a public health and safety issue. We can continue to vilify a homeowner that is skirting their responsibilities, we can look the other way if someone is operating an unlicensed and unregulated business that may be bilking an unsuspecting individual that believes they have done the right thing when they contacted a waste hauler. We can ignore the unregulated contractors. We can ignore the people that really believe they are doing the right thing when they deliver supplies to these rogue camps. Either suggest solutions that can reduce the trash that needs to be dealt with or just accept the fact that it needs to be cleaned up.

  2. For me, opportunistic dumping by housed people (yes, bad and wrong), is just another reason to clear these sites, and is a classic example of broken windows theory.

  3. Right, everything in that headerpicture is stuff people dump. Jeez Erica, this article is not good., I’ve seen encapments in residential areas of the city and by highways, there is no opportunistic dumping there. Not saying it doesn’t happen, but the trash issue in this city from encampments is huge. You should check the purple bag program, as only they get those bags, maybe there is a count for that – Leo

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