Addressing Effective Strategies Towards Encampments

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Since the declaration of the State of Emergency on Homelessness last November, the City has conducted 441 cleanups, or “sweeps” of unsanctioned encampments. Current City protocol provides homeless residents 72 hours’ notice before each cleanup occurs and access to outreach workers to connect to shelter and services. In reality, the notice can be as little as 24 hours, and an outreach worker, if they are able to connect with anyone at all, often does not have available shelters or services for individuals that meet their needs. Physical belongings are misplaced or trashed. An unsheltered person is then left on the sidewalk with nothing and nowhere else to go.

This reality is perhaps the reason why, out of the 441 sweeps conducted since November, 71 unsanctioned encampment sites have had to be repeatedly swept, as people kept coming back. This is perhaps why social service providers in Ballard saw about a 30% increase in foot traffic for their services after a concentrated effort at sweeping unsanctioned encampments in the U-District. In another area of the City, the Wing Luke museum directly attributes the increase in homeless population in the International District to the latest efforts at sweeping the I-5 Duwamish Greenbelt, commonly known as the “Jungle.” The City’s Department of Finance & Administrative Services (FAS) recently reported that in the vast majority of areas from which people are evicted, existing residents or others return almost immediately.

By continuing to conduct sweeps in the same manner, we are expending valuable resources and energy on a strategy that only shifts the problem around and offers a false sense of security for a few people. If our larger goal is to transition individuals and families into permanent housing, then continually displacing them, destabilizing their lives, and compromising relationships and connections to services is not producing the results we need.

About a month ago, I hosted a public forum to hear from community members grappling with public safety and public health challenges in District 6. Almost 200 people attended from all walks of life – ranging from service providers in the District, neighborhood residents, and those living without shelter – to share their thoughts on solutions to these challenges. As attendees talked about encountering needles in their local parks and about other unsanitary conditions as a result of unsheltered people sleeping in public spaces, they proposed solutions to immediately reduce this harm – sharps containers, more public restrooms, garbage pickup, etc., while also advocating for long-term approaches such as more mental health treatment and addiction services, and more housing. I support increased funding for this harm reduction approach, which addresses the immediate public health and safety concerns while allowing us to concentrate our efforts on stabilizing and sheltering as many individuals as possible.

Destabilizing and relocating people without other services or housing to offer works against our harm reduction efforts. That is why I support Council consideration of legislation backed by numerous community organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, and Columbia Legal Services, titled “Sustainable Solutions for Unsheltered Residents.” The legislation basically states that if there is not another specific public use for an area, and if we have nowhere else to send someone, we will not remove an unsheltered person from that location. The legislation still allows for, and in some cases requires, cleaning and garbage pickup of public areas. It also allows for the City to remove encampments from unsafe or unsuitable locations, like sidewalks and schools, or other areas with a specific public purpose. This legislation also does not limit the police from enforcing criminal law. The legislation aims to make our engagement with unhoused individuals more efficient and allows them to self-stabilize in the most appropriate spaces available unless those people can be provided a permanent housing solution.

I understand that there have been concerns about this legislation, some of which have been addressed in the most recent version of the ordinance, and have also been discussed at length in other forums. I intend for this legislation to be vetted through the public legislative process in parallel to, and informed by, the Mayor’s Unsanctioned Encampments Cleanup Protocols Task Force. I believe the Mayor and I have similar goals, and by introducing the legislation now, we can best ensure full consideration of our sweeps protocols before the winter months.

I also don’t want to assert that this legislation is a complete solution to the homelessness crisis, as we have long-term needs we must continue to tackle in the face of declining state and federal funding. We need housing that is affordable and accessible, better mental health and substance use services, and an economic system that allows everyone to thrive. But we must continue this long-term work while responding to people without shelter in an effective, humane, and organized way. The Sustainable Solutions for Unsheltered Residents legislation, in combination with short-term harm-reduction measures, allows the City to focus efforts on immediate public health and safety needs while eliminating ineffective strategies that only move unhoused people around to different areas.