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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Rapid Rehousing Didn’t Work Out. Now Lisa Sawyer May Face Eviction.

Image via Facing Homelessness.

Five years of living on the street takes a toll on a person.

You get used to little indignities—constantly being told to move along, a lack of safe places to use the restroom after 5pm—as well as big ones, like the total lack of privacy, or having all your possessions stolen while you sleep.

For Lisa Sawyer, a Real Change vendor and advocate for homeless services who testifies frequently at Seattle and King County Council meetings, the past five years have been a constant struggle against hopelessness and despair. Rejected for housing over and over by landlords who took one look at her bulky pack and street clothes and decided she wasn’t worth the risk, Sawyer finally signed a lease earlier this year. At $1,350 a month, the one-bedroom apartment in Greenwood was more than she and her boyfriend, a veteran who works as a contractor, could afford, but they had made ends meet despite daunting odds before.  They decided they could make it work. Anything was better than sleeping outside.

Eight months later, Sawyer is once again at risk of ending back on the street, this time with an eviction on her record—a  black mark that would make it all but impossible for her to find housing in the private market. Last month, $2,900 behind on rent, she received a three-day pay or vacate notice—the precursor to a formal eviction. A few days later, the organization Facing Homelessness stepped in and paid her arrears, but next month presents another challenge—and the next month, and the next.

Sawyer’s path from homelessness to housing and, potentially, back again is a case study in how Seattle’s system for housing people experiencing homelessness can fail, and a cautionary tale for leaders who want to go all-in on programs that rely on the private market to catch people at risk for falling through the cracks.

Sawyer, who graduated from Cleveland High School and has lived in Seattle all her life, lost her housing when a roommate lit a candle near some cleaning supplies and the house where she was renting a room burned down. She never imagined she would be homeless this long. “I thought that was the worst day of my life,” she says. “I never thought that having a place could be so much more difficult than being outside.”

Sawyer started out her search for housing armed with a “rapid rehousing” voucher, which would have temporarily paid a portion of her rent in a privately owned apartment. Rapid rehousing, which is the centerpiece of Seattle’s Pathways Home plan to combat homelessness, provides case management and short-term housing vouchers for people experiencing “literal homelessness”—meaning people who are actually living outside or in shelters. The idea behind rapid rehousing is that most homeless people just need a short-term financial boost before they can start making enough money to pay rent on their own. Critics say the program makes unrealistic assumptions about how quickly a person can go from homelessness to full self-sufficiency, and fails to take into account how expensive housing in Seattle can be.

Downtown Emergency Services director Daniel Malone, whose organization distributes some rapid-rehousing vouchers, says “there are a few circumstances where you could use rapid rehousing very confidently and feel very confident that there’s going to be longterm success,” including a situation “where the person has a really good income and is already working a full-time job that pays them enough to rent in the private market.” In that situation, Malone says, rapid rehousing might provide enough money to get a person in an apartment and on their feet. But, he adds, “that’s not the case with a ton of people that are homeless.”

The other circumstance where rapid rehousing works well, Malone says, is when a person with very high service needs—say, a physically disabled person with a serious mental illness—is about to move into permanent supportive housing but just needs a place to stay until a spot becomes available. Sawyer, who works full-time selling Real Change papers at Fourth and Union in downtown Seattle, doesn’t need service-intensive supportive housing, but is unlikely to make enough at her job (which pays as little as $40 a day) to afford a market-rate apartment.

In any case, Sawyer never got a chance to try out rapid rehousing, because she couldn’t find a place that would accept her. From 2015, when she received her voucher from DESC, until this year, when she and her boyfriend moved into their market-rate apartment, Sawyer says she got rejected more than 20 times. “I just gave up hope of finding an actual place, because every time I went to a housing interview, I had all my stuff with me. A lot of people look down on that,” she says. When she did find landlords willing to give her a chance, they weren’t willing to sign a 12-month lease—a requirement for federally funded rapid-rehousing vouchers. The 12-month mandate is meant to ensure rent stability—a landlord can’t sign a three-month lease, then raise the rent beyond a level a voucher recipient can afford—but it also creates a loophole that allows landlords who don’t want to participate in the program to opt out by offering shorter leases.

Eventually, Sawyer got approved for the apartment in Greenwood—but she would have to sign a ten-month lease, making her ineligible for the rapid rehousing program.

Desperate to get indoors, and fed up with caseworkers who urged her to hold out hope, she signed. “We were just fed up with going from interview to interview and getting denied, denied, denied,” she says.

“If you tell a person who’s been outside for a long period of time that they can move in, of course we’ll say yes,” Sawyer says. “It’s heartbreaking.  We were giving up. We were getting at each other’s throats because of being outside this long.” Sawyer’s problems were compounded by the fact that she is not in the county’s “coordinated entry” program, which is run through the shelter system. Like many people experiencing homelessness, Sawyer and her boyfriend avoided the shelter system, which separates opposite-sex couples and can be full of, as Sawyer puts it, “bedbugs and drama.” Sawyer preferred sleeping outside or in motels, where she and her boyfriend could have a semblance of privacy. She put her name on the lottery for several low-income housing developments, but never won; when the Seattle Housing Authority briefly allowed people to sign up for a lottery to get on the waiting list for Section 8 federal housing vouchers, she didn’t bother, because the waiting list is currently several years long. (Section 8 vouchers distributed through the Seattle Housing Authority expire after 120 days, and many people return them unused because they were unable to find housing they could afford or landlords willing to rent to them.)

“I thought this program was going to be a good experience for me, because with that voucher, we thought our housing problems were over,” Sawyer says. “Instead, we got stuck in a place that we cannot afford.” She says she has often been forced to choose between paying rent and buying food; when she makes enough money selling papers at Fourth and Union downtown, she spends “$30 or $40” at the nearby Safeway, but says “that food doesn’t last more than a couple of days, especially if you haven’t eaten in a while.”

Sawyer says she hopes to hang on to her apartment through the end of her lease in September, when she’ll try to find another place—without an eviction on her record. “I can’t be outside again. It’s too heartbreaking,” she says. “We want to get into an apartment so bad. When you have housing, but you know that you might be back outside again soon—that’s the worst feeling that anyone can have. … I’ve worked so hard fighting for affordable housing, fighting for these programs to get more funding, and when it all comes down to it, I wonder: ‘Why are you fighting if you got a voucher that doesn’t really help you?'”

Malone, who has expressed some skepticism at the city’s wholesale embrace of rapid rehousing as a one-size-fits-most solution to homelessness, still thinks living indoors is always preferable to sleeping outside—even when a person has to go through the trauma of losing their home to eviction. “You need to guard against eviction, for sure, but I don’t know that the way you guard against it is eliminating the possibility of it happening by never putting somebody in a rental situation in the first place,” he says. “I don’t want to keep people homeless to protect them or ‘for their own good,’ because the situation of being homeless is so harsh that we should do as much as we can to get people out of it—even if we are far from resolving all their problems.”

Rapid rehousing proponents say stories like Sawyer’s aren’t, in themselves, a repudiation of the program. Mark Putnam, director of All Home—the quasi-governmental agency that oversees King County’s homelessness programs—says rapid rehousing gives people a choice over where they live and how much they want to pay. Putnam says that ideally, someone like Sawyer would have a case manager who would sit down and talk to her about whether $1,350 in rent was realistic, given her current and potential future income; however, case managers in housing programs turn over frequently, and Sawyer herself said she felt desperate enough to sign a lease with any landlord who would rent to her.

“Clearly, the system didn’t work for her, so the question is: What can we learn from it?” Putnam says.

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