Darcie Day and Daniel Long, who sell Real Change, were looking for an apartment they could afford. In the meantime, they pitched their tent in a small grassy area across the street from a Salvation Army store, within sight of Century Link Field.
One day in late June, workers for the city of Seattle showed up and passed out green fliers warning them that they had three days to leave or the campsite would be cleared. The Human Services Department (hsd) sends outreach workers to help people get into shelter or housing, but few shelters accept couples, and Day and Long didn’t want to be split up.
A week went by, but the couple’s campsite went untouched. Day and Long thought they were in the clear.
But days later, while Day and Long were away, someone cleared the area. Others who remained at the site saw workers gather the couple’s belongings, including their tent, a leather coat and medications they both take for bipolar disorder, as well as Long’s sleep and anxiety medications and the prescriptions Day takes for asthma and seizures.
“It’s hard to replace all this stuff when you’re homeless,” Long said.
Day and Long were able to replace some of their medications, but they had to use some of Day’s monthly disability benefits to buy a new tent.
It was an experience that would be repeated throughout the summer as they camped underneath on-ramps and in grassy patches along Fourth Avenue in SODO. At each spot, someone would eventually show up to force them out.
“They just keep giving us a runaround,” Day said.
Day and Long are getting the runaround, and they’re not alone. Research by Real Change shows workers for the city of Seattle are clearing more illegal tent encampments than ever.
In the first half of 2014, workers for the city took down and removed 222 illegal campsites — 92 more than the same period in 2013, according to data from the city of Seattle analyzed by Real Change.
If the present pace continues, Seattle will have cleared more homeless camps this year than in any year on record.
City officials, questioned by Real Change, concede that clearing out the illegal campsites of homeless people is fruitless.
“I see that we’re just moving people in circles around downtown,” said Sola Plumacher, strategic advisor for HSD. “That’s not helpful to anyone.”
Several city and state departments share the responsibility of clearing campsites. The campsite may be on property owned by Seattle City Light or in public right of ways managed by SDOT. This makes the cost of camp clearings difficult to tally.
Interviewed by Real Change, city officials could not determine how much each department spends to clean up encampments.
Some say whatever Seattle is spending playing Whac-a-Mole with homeless people is wasted.
“All that money they’re spending on the cleanups, that’s the kind of money they should spend toward creating more shelter,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which is hosting one of two Nickelsville encampments in the Central District.
The city of Seattle’s approach to illegal camping has long been a source of controversy. Officials have been counting encampment cleanups since 2008, around the time that Mayor Greg Nickels issued an executive order to remove unauthorized encampments. The order required the city to post a three-day warning and to document the cleanup.
That year the city cleared 63 encampments, according to the city’s database. Through 2011, the city cleared a little more than 150 encampments each year. In 2012, the city cleared 258.
So far this year, the city has cleared more than 250 encampments.
A lack of affordable housing is the larger problem behind campsite clearings, said Mark Putnam, director of the King County Committee to End Homelessness.
“It just shows that we need to get more people into housing,” he said. “We need to give people more options than we’ve given them.”
The problem stands to get worse as existing shelters and legal encampments are to be shut down or forced to move. This fall, for example, Millionair Club Charity will eliminate 80 beds for men in order to use the space for job training. Plymouth Church, which is renovating its sanctuary, will eliminate all 50 beds it offers to women.
Those forced out will find few options. Existing shelters are over capacity, Plumacher, of HSD, said. The emergency shelter at Seattle City Hall has space for about 70 people, but typically houses 75 each night, she said.
With all this in mind, why is Seattle clamping down on illegal camping?
Plumacher said the city is clearing more homeless camps because more people are complaining about them. The city launched the “Find It Fix It” mobile phone app in early 2013, which allows people to report problems such as graffiti, damaged city property or encampments.
Construction projects have also claimed a lot of space previously used by homeless people as campground. For years, people sheltered underneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Construction of the Highway 99 tunnel project has pushed those people out. Construction in South Lake Union and along the waterfront has also taken up space previously used for the same purpose, Plumacher said.
The spike in camp clearings is a sign that the city needs to beef up its crisis response for single homeless adults, she said.
HSD is already working on improving how quickly people move through the shelter system to make space for people who sleep outdoors.
Reaching out to city leadership is part of that effort.
“We’re really having to educate a new administration,” Plumacher said.
Mayor Ed Murray’s spokesperson Jeff Reading said the mayor hired a policy analyst on housing and homelessness within the last month but is unable to comment on his policy approach on homelessness until he gathers more information.
“It’s just premature for us to say anything about that,” Reading said.
Life on the move
Homeless people in Seattle who camp under bridges, on sidewalks and in greenbelts say they are now forced to move more frequently.
Many seek refuge in the Jungle, a sloping greenbelt on the west side of Beacon Hill. In thickets of trees and under a maze of freeway on- and off-ramps, they sleep with the constant hum of traffic from Interstate 90.
WSDOT posted signs on July 29 warning campers that the area needed to be cleared within three days. The state agency posts signs under freeways and in WSDOT-owned greenbelts about once a week in Seattle, and it clears encampments two or three times a week, said spokesperson Bart Treece. He said the number and frequency of the clearings has remained steady.
Oscar Madrid, 56, knows the drill. He set up a mattress beneath one of the low-hanging, I-90 on-ramps that curved over the greenbelt. He kept two black suitcases nearby and a small shopping cart with an American flag sticking out of it.
Sipping a beer while wearing a black Def Jam Recordings T-shirt, he explained that he would pack up his suitcases, hide his mattress somewhere nearby and find somewhere else to sleep for a few days.
“I know when they’re coming,” he said. “Let them come anyway and get my stuff. We’ll put [the campsite] back.”
Along Fourth Avenue, where Day and Long have been camping, it’s the same thing. One warm day at the end of July, tents dotted grassy strips of land along the road near the railroad tracks and sports stadiums.
Other tents were pitched on a sidewalk under an on-ramp that leads to Royal Brougham Way.
Kiel, 29, who asked that his last name be withheld, said he’d been camping around the SODO neighborhood for a few weeks after he lost his job as a card dealer at casinos near Shoreline and Arlington.
“They’ll move us along, but we’ll come back the same day,” he said.
For graph on how many cleanups per mayor, click here
This article won First Place in the Investigative/Watchdog category at the 2014 Washington Press Association Awards