City of Seattle Homeless Sweeps Exacerbate Problem, May Push Others to the Streets

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

In the wake of recent eviction sweeps of homeless encampments conducted by the City of Seattle, Columbia Legal Services, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-WA), and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, sent a letter to Mayor Ed Murray outlining concerns about the harmful effects of these activities, noting that the biggest problem is the city forcing people from a location without safe, available alternative places for them to go. The city’s practices appear to include referring people from encampments to shelters that are already at capacity, effectively displacing people who are already in shelter or waiting in line for shelter, and forcing those indoors back to the street.

In the letter, dated December 14, 2015, advocates also listed several concerns about these practices, including a lack of adequate notice, engagement and outreach protocol, procedures around storage and destruction of personal property, and the role of law enforcement at the sweeps.

Advocates have requested a meeting and a halt to these sweeps. The city has not yet responded. Instead, the city has announced it intends to step up its schedule of sweeps, which comes during the holiday season. Witnesses and photos from a recent sweep under the Yesler Way viaduct in downtown Seattle revealed a situation where city employees indiscriminately dumped personal belongings into the garbage – with little warning and no chance for recovery. Many people were absent while their possessions, paperwork, medicine, and keepsakes disappeared for good.

These sweeps are occurring at a time when, as Mayor Murray has said, “[w]e are facing our worst housing affordability crisis in decades.” Making matters worse, state psychiatric hospitals are facing lawsuits because of the chronic lack of mental health beds, chemical dependency treatment options do not nearly meet the needed demand, and there is much less emergency shelter capacity than the number of people who need it.

“We applaud efforts by Mayor Murray to call attention and devote resources to the complicated challenges of homelessness in Seattle,” said Yurij Rudensky, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services. “But with the cost of living in Seattle soaring and people who are experiencing homelessness already facing indignities and perils, destroying their property and failing to provide adequate shelter does not increase safety. Nor does displacing those who are currently using shelter spaces.”

“We agree: this is an emergency,” said Alison Eisinger, Executive Director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “Thousands of people in Seattle, and in the rest of King County, don’t have access to the basics that every human being needs. We hope to see a response that addresses homelessness as a public health crisis, rather than focusing on people who are outside in winter weather as a problem to be ‘cleaned up.’”  

According to announcements around the State of Emergency on homelessness, the city plans to increase available shelter beds by 100, yet the recent annual One Night Count found over 2,800 people outdoors overnight in Seattle after area shelters were full. In all, 3,772 people were counted outside in King County on one night. During the recent sweep, advocates tried to inquire about how people could retrieve their belongings and access needed services, but each party diverted responsibility to a different agency present at the scene, leaving questions around who is directing these efforts.