Tag: sweeps

As County Opens More Non-Congregate Shelter to Prevent Spread of COVID, City Plans to Remove Two More Encampments

Nearly two years after King County first announced that it planned to open a modular shelter for people experiencing homelessness on county-owned property in Interbay, the

project is almost ready to open for a new purpose: Providing non-congregate shelter for between 45 and 50 homeless men over 55 from the St. Martin de Porres shelter, run by Catholic Community Services. The modular buildings, which are essentially trailers with windows, fans, and high-walled cubicles to provide privacy and protection from disease transmission between the four men who will share each unit, were originally supposed to be dorm-style shelters housing up to eight people on beds or cots.

The project, which will include eight individual showers, 10 single-stall restrooms, laundry facilities, a dog run, and a community room with a meal delivery area, cost $7 million, up from a 2018 projection of $4.5 million. Operating the site will cost around $2 million a year.

“The work we’ve gone to move people out of congregate settings and into hotels has been remarkably successful in terms of preventing the spread of the virus”—King County Executive Dow Constantine

King County has focused much of its response to homelessness during the COVID emergency on moving people out of mass shelters—where, County Executive Dow Constantine pointed out Thursday, “we’re likely to have runaway infections before you know it”—and into individual hotel and motel rooms or other non-congregate temporary housing.

Centers for Disease Control guidelines say that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID emergency unless they can offer each person “individual housing,” not space in congregate shelter, to prevent the virus from spreading. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread,” the federal guidance says.

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“The work we’ve gone to move people out of congregate settings and into hotels has been remarkably successful in terms of preventing the spread of the virus,” Constantine said. “We continue to test [people living in] relocated shelters who are in hotels and would be in facilities like this, and we are finding very little if any transmission of the disease.” At the Red Lion Hotel in Renton, which is serving as temporary housing for people who had been staying in the Downtown Emergency Services Center’s main shelter in downtown Seattle, 177 people have been tested for COVID-19; zero have tested positive.

The city has focused its response to homelessness on adding more congregate shelter spaces so that people living in mass shelters can sleep further apart, and on providing referrals to shelter for people at the encampments it removes, which the city says are limited to those that cause a public health or public safety risk. On Thursday, Mayor Jenny Durkan took issue with the notion that the city and county had adopted different approaches. “There is no ‘or’ here,” she said. “We are taking every approach we can and adding significant additional financial resources from the city to make sure that we are bringing as many people inside as we can.”

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.” —Centers for Disease Control

The city’s Navigation Team, a group of police officers and Human Services Department staffers, has removed at least two large encampments in recent weeks—one outside the Navigation Center shelter in the International District and one at the Ballard Commons park. In both cases, the city said the encampments posed a public safety and health risk, because people were congregating in violation of state and city orders. In the case of the Commons, the city said that a hepatitis A outbreak that has sickened 17 homeless people in the Ballard area endangered the safety of people living in and around the park.

“The CDC guidance made very clear that our number one priority would be outreach to people experiencing homelessness, to provide them hygiene, to provide them information, and to try to bring them inside,” Durkan said. “But if there are areas where there is a public safety or public health [issue], we will try to mitigate against that threat.”

The city has said that there were beds in enhanced shelters (24/7 shelters with amenities such as case management and the ability to stay with partners or pets) available for every person living at the Commons, although the city’s official count of 40 residents is significantly lower than estimates provided by both people living at the site and by homeless service providers at the Bridge Care Center across the street. “Before we remove people for public safety or public health reasons, we’re working on an ongoing basis to offer people the opportunity to come inside,” Durkan said.

“Before we remove people for public safety or public health reasons, we’re working on an ongoing basis to offer people the opportunity to come inside.” —Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan 

Next week, the Seattle Human Services Department’s Navigation Team will remove two separate encampments in the International District. On two recent visits to both sites, I counted a total of at least 80 tents, the vast majority of them on South Weller Street between 12th Ave. S. and S. Dearborn St. Durkan did not respond directly to a question about whether the city had sufficient enhanced shelter beds for 80 people. “We will continue to do our best, and we will make offers to everybody who we try to relocate. We want to put compassion first but it has to work with the policy of public safety and public health in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.

The Public Defender Association has offered to place people displaced when the city removes encampments in hotel rooms through its new Co-LEAD program, which is aimed at reducing recidivism by providing case management and temporary non-congregate housing during the COVID crisis. The city did not take them up on their offer, although Durkan has signed off on the program in principle and name-checked it during Thursday’s press conference. Given that the International District encampments are scheduled for removal starting next Tuesday, it appears unlikely at this point that the people living in these encampments will be candidates for Co-LEAD either.

As West Coast Encampment Sweeps Slow During Public Health Crisis, Advocates Say It’s Time to Stop Them Altogether

The story excerpted here originally appeared at Huffington Post, where you can read the entire piece.

Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood has long been home to a large concentration of homeless services. It has two of the city’s biggest shelters, several public feeding programs, and day centers that offer showers, restrooms, and gathering spaces for people with nowhere else to be.

Lately, though, Pioneer Square has become another kind of gathering place: one where tents and makeshift shelters are crowded inches apart and people congregate in clusters on the sidewalk, in defiance of Washington state’s social distancing orders during the coronavirus pandemic. Because most public restrooms are now closed, and the city has provided only a handful of portable toilets to make up for the loss, it has become necessary to watch one’s step. Last week, the head of a social services agency said she was walking to her car when she stepped in a pile of human waste that was sliding down the rainy street.

In Seattle, as in other cities up and down the West Coast, officials are cutting down on encampment sweeps, a controversial practice in which city employees — often police officers or sanitation workers — remove a homeless camp and dispose of tents and other property. The change is born out of necessity: Many shelters are no longer accepting new clients during the pandemic, and cities have been slow to offer hotel rooms or other housing to the people currently living on their streets. People simply have nowhere else to go ― which means cities are finally, at least temporarily, slowing the practice of removing them and their belongings from public spaces.

Advocates for the homeless say Seattle’s partial moratorium on encampment removals is, at best, an overdue first step. The question is whether the city is doing enough to keep those living in the encampments safe ― and whether the moratorium will stick once the COVID-19 crisis ends.

“It shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to understand how extremely damaging it is to uproot people, discard their personal possessions and survival gear, and not give them a solution to their homelessness,” said Alison Eisinger, head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and a vocal opponent of encampment sweeps.

Back in March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted new guidelines advising cities to stop removing encampments “unless individual housing units are available” and to ensure that encampments have access to 24-hour restrooms or portable toilets with sinks. Most cities on the West Coast have only partly followed these guidelines. Seattle and two large California cities ― Oakland and San Jose ― have all formally adopted partial moratoriums on encampment sweeps, while Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, have adopted less specific or informal policies that critics say allow too much leeway for sweeps to continue.

“At the beginning of this crisis, we realized very quickly that sweeps were going to be exactly contrary to public health,” said Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which pushed the CDC to issue its guidance. “The ability to shelter in place as much as possible in your own self-shelter environment, where you can at least have a tent wall between you and your neighbor, is better than a facility where it’s just an open area and the air is circulating and you’re all using the same sinks and toilets.”

Homelessness is hard on a person’s body, making people more susceptible to illness, like COVID-19, and more likely to develop chronic conditions at a younger age. The vulnerability of homeless people to disease outbreaks can, in turn, lead to broader public health implications.

“The message we’ve been trying to send is, it’s not just about people experiencing homelessness in your community,” Tars said. “This is about your entire community, because if you don’t want a hospital bed to be taken up when your grandmother, your brother or your sister needs that bed, you need to take steps now to make sure that bed is empty.”

Read the whole story at HuffPost.

Morales Proposes Eliminating Most Encampment Sweeps, Mayor’s Office Says Huge New “Shelter Tent” Is Coming, and More

Two of the beds the city is counting as “temporary housing” for homeless people, at an isolation/quarantine facility for COVID patients

1. City council member Tammy Morales plans to introduce a budget proviso that would restrict the Navigation Team’s ability to remove encampments that are not true hazards or obstructions. The proposal, a proviso on the adopted 2020 budget, would bar the city from spending money on sweeps except in a few specific circumstances.

The city has suspended most encampment removals during the COVID epidemic, but several homeless advocates expressed concern this week that the city plans to aggressively sweep encampments as soon as the crisis is over. Prior to the pandemic, the team, made up of police officers, outreach workers, and a cleanup crew, was removing most encampments without notice or mandatory outreach, thanks to a loophole in the city’s encampment rules. Although these rules, known as Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules, or MDARs, require the team to provide 72 hours’ notice and an offer of shelter to every encampment resident, the Navigation Team has gotten around this requirement by designating the overwhelming majority of encampments as “obstructions,” which allows them to remove encampments with no notice or outreach.

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Morales’ proposal would allow the Navigation Team to remove encampments only under a narrow set of circumstances. For example, if an encampment obstructed the entrance to a building; presented an immediate fire hazard; or was located inside a children’s play area, it could be removed without warning. A draft of the bill lists six situations when a removal would be justified.

Morales says the Navigation Team “is using this obstruction language as an excuse, really, to remove people, and so we are trying to limit the funds that can be used to remove encampments. … [Withholding funds] is the only leverage we seem to have. People have been calling on the executive branch since longer than Jenny Durkan’s been there to stop this process, and that message doesn’t seem to be getting through.”

2. During a presentation about the challenges the city faces in opening parks restrooms and standing up portable toilets for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID crisis, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller repeated what has become one of the mayor’s favorite talking points: “We recently announced our partnership with the county in creating 1,900 new spaces” for people experiencing homelessness, he said. Sixkiller’s comments came shortly after street outreach workers and advocates described the situation on the ground, where thousands of homeless people without access to shelter or public restrooms lack places to use the restroom or wash their hands. Sixkiller said the new beds were part of the city’s efforts to “[move] people inside so hygiene can be accessed there.”

When council members pointed out that this number is not correct—the 1,900 spaces are mostly hospital and isolation/quarantine beds for people who are sick, and the 700 “new” shelter spaces are existing spaces that have been relocated during the crisis—Sixkiller called their objections “semantic.”

When council members pointed out that this number is not correct—the 1,900 spaces, which the mayor’s office has also described as “temporary housing,” are mostly hospital and isolation/quarantine beds for people who are sick, and the 700 “new” shelter spaces are existing spaces that have been relocated during the crisis—Sixkiller called their objections “semantic.” “The reality is that there are 1,900 beds coming online,” he said. King County’s website is the most accurate guide to these 1,893 beds, some of which may not yet be online; they include about 700 existing shelter spaces that have been relocating to achieve social distancing, plus more than 1,000 hospital beds for people in isolation, quarantine, or recovery.

3. SIxkiller also said the city planned to open a “shelter tent for 180 individuals” in partnership with the Salvation Army. Homeless advocates who were participating in, and watching, the meeting said that this was the first they had heard of such a tent, and it was unclear whether the new tent would be for redistribution or an entirely new shelter. (I’ve asked the city for additional details about the tent). Up and down the West Coast, cities are beginning to move away from congregate shelters, which put people in close proximity, with people sleeping head to foot on mats or cots six feet apart and sharing air and mass restroom facilities. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week that the state would pay for 15,000 motel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, and the city of Los Angeles plans to pay for 15,000 more.

A common objection to putting homeless people in hotel or motel rooms is that they need high levels of “staffing” to supervise them, a claim that advocates say is not true for most homeless people, who are capable of caring for themselves but lack the money to pay sky-high rents. Another objection, which came up at a county briefing on shelter and behavioral health on Wednesday, is that hotels aren’t interested. Some homeless advocates, including Seattle University law professor and Homeless Rights Advocacy Project director Sara Rankin, have suggested that the city or county should put out a request for qualifications to hotels and see who bites. “Right now [the Downtown Emergency Service Center] is trying to reach out to hotel and motel facilities themselves, which shouldn’t be DESC’s problem. That should be something that the city is streamlining,” Rankin says.

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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“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.

As Task Force Proposes “Guiding Principles,” Council Considers Amended Sweeps Protocols

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Mayor Ed Murray’s 18-member Task Force on Unsanctioned Encampment Cleanup Protocols held its final meeting on Tuesday morning, a day after Mayor Ed Murray released a budget that included $2.8 million to “implement [their] recommendations” and a day before the council committee in charge of updating and improving the city’s current policy on homeless sweeps held one of its final meetings on a set of new sweeps protocols that the mayor opposes.  The legislation in front of the council, which was originally drafted by the ACLU of  Washington and Columbia Legal Services, would bar the city from removing tents and property at encampments, except those in “unsuitable,” “unsafe,” or “hazardous” locations, without at least 30 days’ notice and referrals to “adequate and accessible housing.”

Originally, the mayor’s encampment task force was charged with crafting new encampment cleanup protocols, which would be integrated into legislation that the mayor would transmit to the council by the end of September. Instead—after the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services circumvented the mayor by proposing legislation of their own, which District 6 council member Mike O’Brien sponsored—the task force ended up producing a general, innocuous list of “guiding principles” that are now supposed to guide the council as it amends the ACLU legislation.

Former city council member Sally Clark, who chaired the task force, said its mission got muddied “the moment that the task force was announced, because pretty much in the same moment, the legislation was proposed at council to change the basis of the protocols that the city uses for intervening in situations where people are living outside.” The charge of the task force, Clark says, “made lot of sense in the weeks before, but then we were like, ‘Which protocols are we supposed to be looking at? The ones in this legislation, or existing protocols?'”

Once the charge of the task force changed, Clark says, the question became, “do you want to spend five meetings looking at protocols that the council may change five days after you’ve stopped meeting, or do you want to spend your time arriving at these principles that you hope the council will use when looking at these protocols?” They went with the principles.

Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, who sat on the task force, says the group “definitely did not accomplish some of what it was charged with doing, which was reviewing and making recommendations on specific cleanup protocols. We never even got to that stuff.

“That said,” Malone continues, “I think the task force achieved something that may have some utility for the city, which is that it got pretty clear agreement across a spectrum of people as to these principles that I do believe go beyond what the city would consider to be its curet principles on these matters.” In Malone’s view, getting a group that included both members of the Magnolia-based Neighborhood Safety Alliance and the King County Coalition on Homelessness to agree on shared assumptions was a feat in itself. (Clark and other task force members I spoke with agreed with this assessment.)

Another reason the task force never got around to drafting its own protocols for encampment sweeps is that they spent so much time during their three-hour meetings getting members up to speed on the basics (“there was a lack of common understanding,” Clark says) and letting members reiterate their personal views on the impacts and causes of homelessness. (The NSA representative, Gretchen Taylor, was particularly fond of asking rhetorical questions about why the task force had been convened at all, given that camping is illegal.)

“[The task force] definitely did not accomplish some of what it was charged with doing, which was reviewing and making recommendations on specific cleanup protocols. We never even got to that stuff.” -DESC director Daniel Malone

The result was that the task force meetings felt at times like group therapy, and the “guiding principles” reflect it: They include broad statements such as “action must be taken to enhance and reform the effectiveness of our human services system,” and “do no more harm,” as well as almost meaninglessly inclusive statements such as “We recognize that the city’s current approach to managing and removing encampments has negatively impacted homeless individuals and neighborhoods and that new approaches are needed to make sure that our actions match our community values.”

The outcome is far from a win for the mayor, who certainly saw the ACLU legislation coming but may have not anticipated that the council would so eagerly embrace it; instead of undercutting the council with his own, more restrictive encampment bill, Murray is left, at best, with the option of claiming collaboration with the council after they “integrate” the principles of his task force into the ACLU legislation. Even Murray’s promise of $2.8 million to implement the task force’s recommendations falls somewhat flat; since no one knows exactly how the other $12 million Murray’s budget dedicates to programs addressing homelessness will be allocated, the committee couldn’t reach agreement on how to allocate the $2.8 million, particularly in the 20 minutes they had to discuss the matter at the very end of their final meeting Tuesday.

 

The council’s human services committee, meanwhile, has continued to move forward with the ACLU legislation, introducing several amendments Wednesday in response to neighborhood concerns. Specifically, commenters at last week’s meeting, along with residents who have flooded council members’ inboxes with mass emails opposing the legislation, have argued that bill as originally written would allow encampments in schools, playfields, sidewalks, and recreational areas in parks around the city. Although the bill’s sponsors and supporters said such locations would obviously be considered “unsuitable” for encampments, an amended version introduced today tightens up those restrictions, declaring schools, “improved areas” of public parks, and sidewalks in front of residences or commercial areas, as “per se unsuitable” for encampments. “A common question that I’m getting is, ‘Are we going to allow people to camp in parks or play fields where my kids are playing?'” District 4 council member Rob Johnson said. “The answer to those questions is very clearly, ‘no’.”

The new version of the bill also clarifies that the legislation only applies to city-owned property (public schools, Port of Seattle property, and other public property not owned by the city would not have to comply with the rules), removes RV and car campers from the legislation, and sets a two-year sunset date.

Although most of the council seemed pleased with the changes, at-large council member Tim Burgess, whose comments opposing the original bill sparked applause in council chambers a week ago, continued to argue that it was a waste of “energy, time, and resources,” and suggested that the council should instead work on implementing the “creatively disrupting” recommendations in a recent report that said the city could provide shelter for every homeless person within a year by simply allocating resources more efficiently. (Burgess and conspiracy-minded neighborhood activists alike are fond of the report’s somewhat simplistic, and poorly understood, conclusions.)

Burgess, along with District 2 council member Bruce Harrell, raised the specter of neighborhood micromanagement by demanding to know whether specific parts of specific parks—the grassy areas around Green Lake and the woods adjacent to proposed mountain bike trails in Cheasty Greenspace, respectively—would be considered “suitable” for camping. O’Brien countered that if the city opens up the definition of a “suitable” location to every individual neighborhood,  “I think most folks will say, ‘I don’t think right next to me is OK,’ and pretty soon we get to a place where every single place in the city is unsuitable.”

Bagshaw said she expects to spend the next week in “continued negotiations” with Murray’s office over the details of the legislation, but added that time is running short. “We want to get the decision we make here into the budget for 2017 [and] make sure there’s enough money to focus on outreach and services,” Bagshaw said. “If we miss this window, it could [be] a long time before we’re able to collectively talk about it [again.] The full council could vote on the legislation as soon as October 10.

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P-Patch Overreach?

As an avid P-Patch gardener and longtime participant in the program, I receive all emails that go out to the P-Patch listserv.  Usually, they have subject lines like “FREE Farm Talk & Tour” or “You’re invited to our Garden Gala on Sept 16!”

But the one I received yesterday was different. Subject-lined “Issues related to unauthorized encampments” and signed by P-Patch supervisor Rich MacDonald, the letter read,

Dear P-Patch Community,

Unauthorized homeless encampments and their impacts on neighborhoods has been a recurring issue, and we’ve heard from many of our P-Patch community gardeners in recent months.

How we manage Seattle’s homelessness crisis is a much debated topic in our city. What is clear is that we need to find solutions that are compassionate while also prioritizing public health and safety.

We wanted to make sure you were aware that there is a draft bill being put before the City Council on Tuesday that could limit the City’s ability to balance those two factors, effectively making it more difficult for the City to address various issues as it relates to unauthorized encampments.

While we work to address the root causes of homelessness and find long term solutions for our region, we also have an obligation to address and mitigate public health and safety risks in all of our neighborhoods.

As we know this is a topic of concern for you, we just wanted to encourage you to learn more about this issue and add your voice by writing or calling your city councilmember.

(Bolds mine.)

What strikes me about this letter, which encourages gardeners to write or call their city council members, is that it’s an unusually political use of a listserv whose primary purpose is to share news about gardening and gardening-related opportunities. By characterizing the legislation, which would protect unauthorized campers from sweeps and the confiscation of their property and is supported by homeless advocates and the ACLU, as a proposal to “effectively mak[e] it more difficult for the City to address various issues as it relates to unauthorized encampments,” this letter tacitly advocates against the legislation, and puts the Department of Neighborhoods, which has not expressed an opinion on the proposal, in the position of opposing the bill as well.

At least, that’s how I read telling people that a bill will make it “more difficult” for the city to “mitigate health and safety risks” facing P-Patch gardeners, and asking those gardeners to contact the city about that bill.

As someone who opposes the city’s rather heavy-handed approach to sweeps, I wouldn’t characterize my concerns about encampments as being primarily about their “impacts on neighborhoods,” but rather about the impact the city’s sweeps are having on the homeless people who are being swept from place to place with no offer of immediate housing or meaningful services. I would imagine that at least some of my neighbors share those concerns, rather than just the ones MacDonald flags in his email.

I’ve contacted MacDonald and will update this post when I hear back from him.