Facing Homelessness’ New Project: Sweeping Up Trash to Stop the Sweeps

I’m standing next to a freeway overpass with a couple dozen strangers, milling around and chatting about what brought us here this Sunday morning while Rex Hohlbein, the head of the nonprofit group Facing Homelessness, beams and hugs each new arrival. A pile of garbage bags, a dozen hardware-store grabbers, two boxes of latex gloves, and several red sharps containers are piled up near the gate separating the overpass from a homeless encampment on a hillside overlooking I-5 and downtown Seattle. These will be our tools for picking up trash at this hillside homeless encampment overlooking downtown Seattle, one of an estimated 400 such encampments in the city.

Facing Homelessness—which started out as a Facebook page aimed at humanizing Seattle’s thousands of homeless residents  by telling some of their stories, and expanded to include the BLOCK Project, which builds housing for formerly homeless people in homeowners’ backyards—has found a new avenue for its advocacy: Cleaning up encampments that are at risk of removal by the city’s Navigation Team.

A bit of backstory: The Navigation Team, a group of police officers and outreach workers who remove unauthorized encampments and inform their residents about available shelter and services, has begun focusing primarily on removing encampments that constitute “obstructions”—a term that includes any encampment that is in a public park, on a sidewalk, or where a large amount of trash has accumulated.  Once an encampment is deemed an “obstruction,” the Navigation Team can remove it without notifying residents or offering them shelter or services.

“If people come down [the hillside] to engage with you, that’s your opportunity to engage with another person, and that’s way more important than picking up garbage.”

The cleanups, which Hohlbein started organizing in early June, now draw dozens of volunteers eager to help solve a vexing problem—because the city only collects trash from ten encampments at a time (a program that could expand to two more encampments this year), garbage—clothes, needles, food waste, and the detritus of everyday life—tends to pile up. (Illegal dumping by people who live elsewhere exacerbates the problem.) Eventually, the Navigation Team will either come in and pick up some of the garbage or remove the encampment entirely and clear the trash away. Removing the trash, Hohlbein hopes, will help forestall this process by removing one of the city’s justifications for “sweeps.”

Before volunteers can start piling the trash that litters the bottom of this hillside into big black plastic bags, there are some principles to go over. First principle: Have respect. “We have to remember that we’re entering people’s home right now, and it may not feel like that because it’s outside, but we have to be respectful of people’s privacy and not leave the path below the encampment,” Hohlbein tells his volunteers. Second principle: Safety. Hohlbein shows the volunteers how to safely pick up needles—with a grabber, held at a safe distance—and dispose them in the sharps containers provided by the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance.

Yes, the project is “about cleaning up the city,” Facing Homelessness’ Rex Hohlbein says. “But really, we want to stop the sweeps.”

Third: Community.

“We’re here to have fun. That is really important. We want you to come back and tell your friends and family about this.” And finally, “and least important”: Pick up garbage. “If people come down [the hillside] to engage with you, that’s your opportunity to engage with another person, and that’s way more important than picking up garbage.”

Over the course of the morning, between marking needles on the ground with flags for the designated needle pickers and sorting through stuff to decide what’s trash and what might be useful—a dirty roll of paper towels goes in the bag, some barely damaged books are gathered and left on the ground—I talked to some of the volunteers to find out why they were there. One young woman, who works for the youth homelessness nonprofit YouthCare, told me she was from Aberdeen, where youth homelessness (and recruitment into white supremacist groups) is a major issue, and saw the cleanups as an opportunity to extend her service work. Another volunteer, whose organization builds tiny houses for people experiencing homelessness, said he was frustrated that the city hasn’t created more tiny house villages and was showing up to support Hohlbein in his effort to prevent more encampment removals.

The trash pickups end at 12:30 sharp—enough time, on this day, to collect dozens of bags of trash, and hundreds of needles, from the hillside. After the volunteers pile up the trash outside the gate, the city’s Navigation Team, which was just leaving the camp when we arrived, will come back with a truck to gather the bags so that the rats and crows won’t get to them first. Hohlbein its’ about cleaning up the city but really we want to stop the sweeps

Hohlbein checks on some encampment residents he’s gotten to know, just to see how they’re doing and if they need anything from him. He snaps photos of several of the people living in the camp, which he will post on the Facing Homelessness website along with a request on the Facing Homelessness page for donations to buy tents, sleeping bags, and tarps. On the way back down the hillside, Hohlbein stops and poses a rhetorical question. “If [the city has], like, a five-prong plan for homelessness, why wouldn’t one of them be to clean up the garbage?” He says he hopes to expand the project to have weekly cleanups across the city. Yes, the project is “about cleaning up the city,” he says. “But really, we want to stop the sweeps.”

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Seattle’s Homeless Encampment Trash Is a Home-Grown Problem

I wrote a piece for Grist this week about the problem of illegal dumping at homeless encampments, which is exacerbating the garbage pileups that often lead to encampment removals. It’s a problem duplicated in other West Coast cities struggling with the homelessness crisis.

Here’s a short excerpt; check out the whole story at Grist

The 6-foot-long mauve couch just showed up one night.

So did the washing machine, and the box spring, and the piles of office chairs that littered a homeless encampment on a hillside overlooking downtown Seattle in early June, where a 1-800-Got-Junk truck just pulled away, loaded to the brim.

“I’ve seen televisions, couches, random bags of trash that isn’t ours,” said Jody*, who has been homeless for about two years and was living in a tent near the top of the hillside on the day of my visit, directly below a large apartment complex.

“Things will just appear. People in those apartments there” — she gestured further up the hillside — “dump bags of trash over the fence.” Jody’s friend Robyn, who was living with her partner in a nearby tent at the time, added, “People dump stuff here all the time. I don’t know why. They’re so lazy — you have trash service, why don’t you use it?”

As homeless encampments proliferate across the country, so do the piles of trash that build up in, around, and near them — trash that local waste management companies struggle to collect. The problem is particularly intractable on the West Coast, where rising housing costs have combined with a lack of investment in shelters to create a proliferation of tent cities from Los Angeles to Vancouver.

In Los Angeles, the number of people living outside or in cars rose 16 percent over the past year to more than 27,000. And in Seattle, the one-night count in January found 3,558 people living without shelter, a slight decrease from last year. Unsheltered people are surrounded by a staggering amount of trash: Garbage collectors report picking up five to seven tons every day in Los Angeles; 24 tons at a single encampment in Berkeley; and 8.5 tons along a single stretch of Interstate 84 in Portland, according to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

In Seattle, the city picked up 355 tons of trash at or near 71 encampments in just the first three months of this year. But as in Los Angeles — where L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez recently reported that local merchants “routinely dump their own trash on the streets or pay homeless people a few bucks to get rid of it for them” — the story in Seattle is more complicated than it seems.

Read the whole piece at Grist.

Morning Crank: City Homelessness Director Resigns, Offers New Explanation for Decrease In 72-Hour Encampment Removals

1. Seattle Human Services Department deputy director Tiffany Washington, who heads up  the Homeless Strategy and Investment division within the city’s Department of Human Services, has submitted her resignation to interim HSD director Jason Johnson, the C Is for Crank has learned. As I reported on Twitter Wednesday morning, Washington will be taking a new position as deputy director at the city Department of Education and Early Learning starting on September 18.

The news, which was just announced to HSD and DEEL staff late Wednesday morning, comes at a tumultuous time for the division, whose functions will be at least partly subsumed by a new regional agency that is supposed to launch later this year. Parts of the homelessness division are currently undergoing reorganization, and staffers are experiencing “a lot of anxiety” because “they don’t know where their jobs are going to be or what’s going to happen to them” as part of the regional consolidation of county and city homelessness services, says Shaun Van Eyk, a union representative for PROTEC17, which represents about 3,000 city workers.

Many positions at HSI are currently vacant, including the job of division director, which was Washington’s title until she was promoted to deputy director in 2018. One in three positions in the grants and contracts section, which prepares and administers contracts with human services providers, is currently empty.

In an email to homeless service providers, Johnson announced Washington’s resignation “with great gratitude and sadness” and cited a number of accomplishments during her two years heading up the homelessness division: heading up the first year of competitive contracting for homeless service providers, including a controversial “performance pay” provision that docks human service organizations for failing to meet predetermined performance metrics; opening new tiny house village encampments; expanding the Navigation Team, a group of police officers, data crunchers, and city outreach and cleanup workers; and increasing the number of shelter beds.

But Washington also presided over a time of low morale within her division. In to an employee survey released earlier this year and first reported here, homelessness division employees reported feeling left out of major decisions, unheard by management, and uninformed about matters affecting them. At the time, Johnson was seeking permanent appointment to the position and was facing intense scrutiny, much of it coming from HSD employees who felt Johnson was insensitive to racial dynamics at HSD and demanded a transparent and competitive hiring process. Less than a month after the survey was released, it became clear that Johnson did not have the council votes to secure a permanent appointment, and Mayor Jenny Durkan pulled his nomination, saying that he would continue filling the role in a technically interim capacity through at least 2020 (Durkan’s term ends in 2021).

Johnson’s email to service providers Wednesday concluded by noting that “Currently, there is a job posting open for a Division Director to help carry this work forward for the next year. Please recommend this opportunity to those in your network who might be interested.”

In an email, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding said the department’s top priority was filling the long-vacant Division Director position, and that once that happens, the department will “evaluate any other needs, as we also continue to move on the regional authority work. Each open position will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

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For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is my full-time job. Help keep that work sustainable by becoming a supporter now!

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2. Washington’s imminent resignation was not yet public knowledge (nor were all council members at the table aware it was coming) on Tuesday, when she presented the latest quarterly report on the Navigation Team’s progress at the city’s civil rights committee meeting. I wrote about the report, which helped to confirm my own reporting that the Navigation Team is now primarily removing “obstruction” encampments that do not require advance notice or offers of services,  back in May.

Council members pressed Washington to explain why the Navigation Team has shifted its focus away from what Washington called “72-hour cleans”—encampment removals in which residents get 72 hours’ advance notice, plus access to one of the enhanced shelter beds that are set aside for Navigation Team referrals. Initially, Washington questioned whether this shift was even happening (“you’re saying that there are less 72-hour cleans than there were at this time last year; I don’t know if that’s true,” she said—an assertion that prompted committee chair Lisa Herbold to respond, “It’s 95 percent”). Then she said the team has shifted away from doing 72-hour removals because there simply aren’t enough “viable shelter options” to offer beds to all the people living in encampments who might want to move inside. “The number of shelter beds that are available dictate the number of 72-hour cleans,” she said. On a typical night, according to the quarterly report, there are 17 shelter beds available exclusively to the Navigation Team.

Update: HSD spokeswoman Olberding says Washington’s intent was not to suggest any relationship between the reduction in 72-hour removals and the increase in removals of “obstruction” encampments, which she says “are occurring at a higher rate to address encampments that consistently impact the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-ways and open spaces.”

Last month, the head of the Navigation Team, Sgt. Eric Zerr, told me that Mayor Jenny Durkan “really wants us to focus on right-of-way and parks,” adding that the change should not be attributed to “anything except for shifting around some priorities.” And Mark Prentice, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the increase didn’t represent “a new trend,” but was part of a “long-term and concentrated focus by the team to remove obstructions that are impacting the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-way, such as sidewalks and mobility ramps.”

City’s Outreach Partner Disengages from Navigation Team as City Removes More Encampments Without Notice

The city’s Navigation Team, a group of Seattle police officers and social service workers that removes  unauthorized encampments from public places and offers referrals to shelter and services to their displaced residents, has shifted its focus at the direction of Mayor Jenny Durkan. Instead of providing 72 hours’ notice and offers of shelter and services before removing unauthorized encampments (the “navigation” part of the equation), the Navigation Team is now focused primarily on removing encampments deemed to be “obstructions,” a designation that exempts the team from the usual notice and outreach requirements.

In response to this shift in focus, REACH, the nonprofit that serves as the social-service and outreach arm of the Navigation Team, will no longer participate in encampment removals except when camp residents explicitly request their presence, the group’s co-director, Chloe Gale, says.

I asked Sgt. Eric Zerr, the Seattle Police Department team leader for the Navigation Team, about the shift after a recent public safety town hall meeting in North Seattle. “[Durkan] just said, ‘Given that we have limited resources… these are the things you guys should focus on,” Zerr said. “And it isn’t that we aren’t still doing 72-hour cleans”—the city’s preferred term for what many advocates refer to as sweeps—”we still are. But I think the priority of the team has changed, [in that] the mayor wants us to focus on cleans that are more obstruction-oriented.”

“It isn’t that we aren’t still doing 72-hour cleans. We still are. But I think the priority of the team has changed, [in that] the mayor wants us to focus on cleans that are more obstruction-oriented.—Seattle Police Sgt. and Navigation Team leader Eric Zerr

Over the course of five weeks in April and May, 96 percent of encampments scheduled for removal on the Navigation Team’s weekly unauthorized encampment removals list were for “obstructions,” and therefore exempt from the usual notice and referral requirements. This list does not correspond precisely to which camps are ultimately removed, because many factors can contribute to whether the city removes a particular encampment on schedule. However, a comparison to previous schedules shows a clear upward trend—in August 2018, for example, 74 percent of scheduled removals were for “obstruction” encampments exempt from the notice and outreach rules.

Ordinarily, under rules the city adopted in 2017, the Navigation Team has to provide at least 72 hours’ notice—and two visits from outreach workers—before it can remove an unauthorized encampment. The “obstruction” designation functions like a declaration of emergency, allowing the Navigation Team to bypass those requirements. (They typically offer 30 minutes’ notice to allow people to leave voluntarily, but are not required to do so by law). “The mayor really wants us to focus on [removing encampments in] rights-of-way and parks,” said Sgt. Zerr. “Our calendar is still full, but it just doesn’t have the amount of 72-hour cleanings it used to.”

Mark Prentice, a Durkan spokesman, denies that there has been any change in the city’s approach to encampment removals. “There has not been a new shift towards obstruction/hazard removals, nor is this a new trend,” Prentice said in an email. “Rather, there has been long-term and concentrated focus by the team to remove obstructions that are impacting the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-way, such as sidewalks and mobility ramps.”

“There has not been a new shift towards obstruction/hazard removals, nor is this a new trend. Rather, there has been long-term and concentrated focus by the team to remove obstructions that are impacting the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-way.” —Mayor Jenny Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice

Prentice suggested that I may have missed coverage of the issue last summer by other local media, and provided a link to an August 2018 Seattle Times story that was about the increase in encampment removals in general. That story noted that at the time, about 40 percent of encampment removals for the year to date were exempt from the mandatory outreach and offer-of-shelter requirements. UPDATED: HSD’s most recent report on encampment removals shows that 82 percent of the removals were camps deemed to be “hazards” or “obstructions” and exempt from those requirements. That’s an increase from the last three months of 2018, when the report found that about 75 percent of removals were exempt from those requirements.

According to the city’s official encampment removal rules, a camp (which, as defined in the city’s rules, can consist of a single sleeping bag if it looks like it’s located in a public place for the purpose of sleeping overnight) is an “obstruction” if it’s “in a City park or on a public sidewalk; interfere[s] with the pedestrian or transportation purposes of public rights-of-way; or interfere[s] with areas that are necessary for or essential to the intended use of a public property or facility.” Interpreted broadly, this means that a single tent in a city park can be considered an “obstruction” of the park’s intended use, and subject to removal without notice or outreach.

REACH’s Gale says her organization’s outreach workers—who are supposed to help encampment residents hook up with shelter and services— “don’t always feel comfortable there. We’ve agreed that that’s optional. We’ll go if we’re requested by the people at the site, but we’re not going to just stand by” as a matter of course, she says. REACH will still participate in outreach prior to the increasingly rare 72-hour removals.

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Instead, Gale says REACH is moving to a “neighborhood-based outreach model” that involves getting to know communities, including businesses as well as both sheltered and unsheltered residents—a better way to build trust, Gale says, than showing up for the first time on the day of an unannounced removal. REACH is in the process of embedding outreach workers in four quadrants of the city, where they’ll partner with local business improvement districts to identify people experiencing chronic homelessness and build relationships with them over time, with the goal of getting them into services and off the street.

As REACH phases out of its work with the Navigation Team, the city is taking its outreach services in-house, hiring two new “system navigators” who, according to Durkan spokesman Prentice, “will work in the same way as REACH does, providing outreach during  encampment removals and lead[ing] on making offers of shelter, referrals to shelter, and transporting people to shelter.” (Zerr said SPD also provides outreach when they can.)

As REACH phases out of its work with the Navigation Team, the city is taking its outreach services in-house, hiring two new “system navigators” who, according to Durkan spokesman Prentice, “will work in the same way as REACH does, providing outreach during  encampment removals and lead[ing] on making offers of shelter, referrals to shelter, and transporting people to shelter.”

In 2017, the ACLU of Washington unsuccessfully sued the city on behalf of encampment residents who said the city unlawfully seized and destroyed their property. ACLU spokesman Brian Robick said it was “especially troubling” to hear that the city had ramped up “obstruction”-related encampment removals, “given the undisputed fact that many unhoused people have nowhere else to go.”

“Seattle’s policy and practice of seizing and destroying unhoused residents’ property without adequate notice or an opportunity to be heard raises grave civil rights concerns,” Robick said. “Throwing away someone’s belongings without warning is not only unconstitutional—it is harmful, inhumane, and ineffective, and does nothing to help people get off the streets or address the housing crisis.”

“Not Factual”: Human Services Department Pushes Back on Critical Navigation Team Audit

Representatives from the Human Services Department, including Navigation Team leader Jackie St. Louis, were on the defensive yesterday after the city auditor presented a report finding significant shortcomings in the city’s response to unsheltered homelessness. The auditor’s report, which I covered in more detail earlier this month, found that it’s hard to know whether the Navigation Team—which removes unauthorized encampments and informs their residents about available shelter beds and services—has been successful at getting unsheltered people into safer situations, because HSD doesn’t have a rigorous system for tracking that information and has refused to allow an independent assessment of its performance. The audit also criticized the city for still failing to provide for the most basic needs of the unsheltered Seattleites it serves, such as restrooms and showers; across the city, just six public restrooms (including four Port-a-Potties) are open at night, and the audit team found three of the six were “damaged in a way that adversely affected their usability.”

“Without adequate access to bathrooms, it’s understandable that we would see the things that we saw on our site observations—human waste on sidewalks, human waste in buckets, human waste in greenspaces,” Claudia Gross-Shader from the auditor’s office said. “The cleanups conducted by the Navigation Team often involved removing human waste. … However, letting human waste accumulate to the point at which it may be removed by the Navigation Team is not an effective strategy for mitigating the negative impacts that unauthorized encampments can have in public spaces and adjacent neighborhoods.”

“Without adequate access to bathrooms, it’s understandable that we would see the things that we saw on our site observations—human waste on sidewalks, human waste in buckets, human waste in greenspaces.”

Gross-Shader also expressed frustration at the fact that HSD has resisted allowing a “rigorous independent evaluation” of how the Navigation Team is doing. “At this time,  tgthe executive concludes that [such reports are] costly and that they should be done after many years of implementation. We have provided examples of low-cost and no cost [evaluation options]… and they should be started sooner rather than later. A really great example of a rigorous evaluation is the LEAD program,” which diverts low-level offenders from prosecution, Gross-Shader continued. “When it was first getting started, the [evaluation] found that 58 percent of the LEAD clients did not get rearrested compared to the control group of clients, and they’ve used those evaluation results to help inform their program and make course corrections over time.”

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Moments after the auditor’s staff concluded their presentation, HSD division director Tiffany Washington assailed some of the auditor’s conclusions as “not factual”—particularly a slide (above) showing the fractured and (in the auditor’s view) uncoordinated system of outreach and services for people living unsheltered. (The report found that “City-funded homeless outreach is decentralized, and there is no system for frequent tactical communication among all homeless outreach providers, which “limits the City’s ability to provide proactive outreach to newly unsheltered individuals before they become chronically unsheltered.”) “It’s not disjointed—it’s created that way by design,” Washington said. “We we don’t’ want 90 percent of our outreach workers to be in the field responding to cleans; we want 90 percent of our outreach workers to be in the field developing relationships with people who are unsheltered, so that by the time the Nav Team gets there, they have a connection and it’ll be easier to connect those folks to resources.”

“I don’t want a connection to be made that if you stop doing cleans and you just focus your efforts on getting people to come inside that they will just magically accept.”

The Navigation Team is charged with, among other things, removing encampments that pose a health and safety hazard to their occupants; the team is supposed to provide 72 hours’ notice of a removal to encampment residents, but can remove an encampment without any notice if the team decides that the encampment is an “obstruction” or poses an “immediate hazard” to its occupants or surrounding residents. In practice, during the fourth quarter of 2018, only a quarter of encampment removals qualified for advance notice. Of 109 encampment removals (or “cleans,” as HSD is now calling them), 81 were deemed immediate hazards or obstructions and exempt from the 72-hour requirement.

Committee chair Lisa Herbold pointed out two specific times when the need to clear “immediate hazards” right away appeared to slow down appreciably: During the recent snowstorm, when the Navigation Team suspended sweeps and focused entirely on getting people inside, and during November and December, when encampment removals slowed to a crawl. (According to my own review of the Navigation Team’s weekly reports for the last six months, there were no encampment sweeps at all between November 22 and December 2, from December 18 to December 25, and from December 29 to January 7. (One encampment was removed between Christmas and December 28.)

Encampment removals picked right back up after the holidays, when they returned to a level similar to the summer months, which calls into question the notion that “weather” and “rain”-related “safety” concerns are the primary reasons the Navigation Team lightens up on removals during those two months.

Why, Herbold wondered rhetorically, did removals slow down so much right at the end of the year?

“There is a ramp-down that happens during the final months of the year, particularly some of December. There’s generally less operations that happen. Generally, you find in November, December, there’s less activity,” St. Louis said.

“And why is that?” Herbold asked.

“There’s just a ramp-down—the weather, too, as well,” St. Louis said. “There’s some encampments that can’t be engaged based on safety reasons. There’s more rain. There’s cold. And also, I think human beings, too, have the tendency, after working a very long year, to want to take some time off.” In other words: Encampment removals became apparently less urgent during Thanksgiving and Christmas, in other words, because the people doing the removals got those weeks off. (They picked right back up after the beginning of the year, when removals returned to similar levels to the number of removals the team does during the summer months, which calls into question the notion that “weather” and “rain”-related “safety” concerns are the primary reasons the Navigation Team lightens up on removals during those two months.)

St. Louis and Washington both confirmed that the Navigation Team stopped doing sweeps during the snowstorm because their primary goal was ensuring people were safe and getting them inside; however, Washington said, it would be a mistake to read too much into the Navigation Team’s success at getting people inside during the snowstorm even without the looming threat of sweeps. “I don’t want a connection to be made that if you stop doing cleans and you just focus your efforts on getting people to come inside that they will just magically accept,” Washington said.

City Accelerates Homeless Encampment Removals, Doubling Pace in 2018

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.

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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.