A hard rain pelted the tents that lined Dilling Way and Fourth Avenue South on a recent December Monday morning. Those that remained dry on Fourth Avenue were sheltered beneath the Yesler Way overpass.
Franklin Stone sifted through piles of clothing, stuffing his possessions into bags while the rain struck his red tent. Earlier that morning, city workers had informed him that he had to leave the area that day. A notice, hung on a fence behind his tent, announced the area had to be cleared of campers.
“I hate to leave,” Stone said. He received a referral to go to Nickelsville’s newly opened tent city in Ballard and while he packed his belongings, he weighed whether to go.
Around the corner, a work crew from the Department of Corrections collected unclaimed tents, layers of cardboard and wet sleeping bags, which they threw into the back of a truck. Under the supervision of a corrections officer, people working off a sentence collected material that city officials had determined was garbage and not someone’s possessions.
“We’re storing property, and we’re providing outreach,” said Paul Gracy, a police officer who stood by while the cleanup took place.
It was just one of at least 527 cleanups that have occurred this year throughout Seattle. As more people congregate under bridges, on sidewalks and in parks, city workers come with police to clear out the areas and clean up the refuse. Historically, it has been an expensive game of Whac-A-Mole that does little more than push homeless people around the city (“Out of Sight,” RC, Aug. 13, 2014).
The city is trying to improve the process, with additional shelter capacity reserved for people dislocated by the cleanups and more outreach workers to help connect them with services. The cleanups will continue, but city officials say the process should get more people into housing.
“Each year [the number of cleanups] has been significantly higher,” said Katherine Jolly, spokesperson for the Human Services Department.
In 2014, the city conducted 351 cleanups, according to data provided by the Human Services Department (HSD). In 2015, the city conducted 527 through November, a record.
The city’s Seattle Encampment Response & Information System database has more cleanups logged each year. The database logs and tracks complaints about public camping and tracks the outreach and cleanup effort. According to that database, the city completed 505 cleanups in 2014 and 572 cleanups in 2015 as of Dec. 22.
Human Services Department officials were unable to say why the database listed more cleanups; the database could include duplicated data or other events that do not fit the criteria of an encampment cleanup.
“We’re hoping it goes down,” Jolly said, “because it means people are in housing.”
Others familiar with the city’s efforts say more cleanups are coming, and they worry that there’s not enough shelter and resources for all of the people swept up in the process.
“At this time, I don’t think it’s adequate for the kind of clearing calendar they’re doing,” said Chloe Gale, co-program director of REACH, an Evergreen Treatment Services program that provides outreach for the city cleanups.
Without amped-up shelter and services, cleanups like these could result in shifting homeless people around the city without decreasing homelessness. Columbia Legal Services, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (skcch) drafted a letter to the city Dec. 14 urging city officials to revise their encampment cleanup procedures and expand shelter so there is enough room for people uprooted by the cleanups without displacing existing shelter residents.
The city’s process has a number of problems and does not clearly define when a person’s possessions are to be saved and stored, said Alison Eisinger, executive director of skcch. The city has yet to respond to the letter, she said.
“In the meantime, people are being harmed,” she said.
For housed people in Seattle, the encampments may appear to be a nuisance that fills sidewalks, parks and greenbelts throughout the city. But to the people who live there, these impromptu tent cities are home.
One tent underneath the Yesler Way overpass on Fourth Avenue was decorated for Christmas. Foot-high statues of Santa and Mrs. Claus holding candles flanked either side of the tent entrance, providing a little holiday warmth on an otherwise cold and wet day. Just down the block, workers were bagging up everyone else’s possessions.
The city has had an established process for clearing encampments since 2008. Under Mayor Ed Murray’s recent declaration of emergency on homelessness, city officials say they are improving the process with the intent of moving more people off the streets and into safer places, such as shelters, hotels and tent cities.
The city posts notifications at an encampment site before the cleanup occurs. City policy requires that people have three days’ notice before the cleanup takes place.
It’s more than just moving homeless people, said Jason Kelly, spokesperson for Murray’s office. It’s also about cleaning the area for the sake of public health.
“When individuals live outdoors, it creates a big mess,” he said. “That mess can have really big public and environmental health impacts.”
The city is in the process of increasing the number of people providing outreach before and during encampment cleanups. The city has provided outreach to encampments before, but “at a very, very limited capacity,” Kelly said.
Currently, the city has two outreach workers from REACH. Eventually, the city hopes to have six people in three targeted teams that would focus on specific populations such as youth and families.
That will help, said REACH's Gale. Just a year ago, REACH did not receive much information from the city about cleanups and when they would actually occur. Even though the notices post a cleanup date, oftentimes cleanup crews show up days later. Gale said the city should set specific timelines so homeless people and outreach workers know when a cleanup will really occur.
She is awaiting more information on the improvements the city is making to the cleanups, but she’s encouraged by what she’s seen.
“We’re optimistic, but we have not seen the package of resources that the city says that they’re putting together,” Gale said. “We hope to have a lot more information in another week or so.”
If the city wants to succeed, Gale said, it needs to establish enough beds without displacing people currently in the shelter system and provide behavioral health care.
Earlier this month, the city cleared an encampment at Interstate 90 on Rainier Avenue South. The encampment had 27 tents and 16 people at the time. The people there were referred to a number of services, including Rapid Rehousing, given motel vouchers, sent to a city-authorized tent encampment in Interbay, referred to a supportive car camping program, provided bus tickets to travel elsewhere or sent to the Union Gospel Mission shelter.
People who are not present during a cleanup have a very different experience. Some leave their tents in the morning only to find all of their possessions missing when they return later in the day.
Eugene Graham lost all of his possessions during an early December cleanup. He had set up a tent on Fourth Avenue in front of a blocked-off driveway among many other tents. He didn’t know the area would be clearned, so he thought it would be a safe location to camp.
He left around 11:30 a.m. to get lunch at the Bread of Life Mission. When he returned, his tent and all his possessions were gone.
He had a military-grade sleeping bag, a $100 Carhartt jumpsuit and, most importantly, a military-green canvas backpack that he’s carried all over the country. He wrote the names of bands and dates of concerts he attended all over the green canvas. It marked his recent AC/DC concert in San Francisco, which he attended by hitchhiking from Seattle to the Bay area in September. It marked the time he saw Willie Nelson in 2009.
He cried as he described the bag and a Hawaiian shirt a friend had given him, which was a physical reminder that he wanted to go Hawaii, the only state he’s never visited.
“You’ve got to lose everything before you know what you really have,” Graham said. “Well, guess what? Now I really have lost everything, and it’s hard as shit trying to get it back.”
It’s difficult to know what happened to Graham’s possessions. He filled out a form at the Seattle Municipal Tower to get his possessions back but, as of Dec. 19, had not received them.
The city has staff on site during cleanups to determine what items to save and what to throw away. But there’s no established criteria to determine whether an item is garbage or not.
“It does become a determination that the field coordinator with the cleanup crews has to make,” said mayoral spokesperson Kelly.
The process didn’t work at the recent cleanup on Fourth Avenue, said Yurij Rudensky, attorney with Columbia Legal Services Economic Justice Project. Columbia Legal Services staff witnessed the cleanup and saw one man stuffing his possessions into bags. He left to go to the Downtown Emergency Services Center to get more bags for his gear.
By the time the man returned, the corrections workers had already thrown his possessions in the truck hauling away the garbage, Rudensky said. His possessions were there on the truck, but the workers would not let him retrieve it.
“He was very distraught,” Rudensky said, “pleading to be able to access his things.”
The city stores the saved material in SoDo in a long, beige storage unit on Airport Way on the same property where the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) creates and stores traffic signs.
Inside the unit, opaque bags of material were piled along the sides. A skateboard leaned against the wall next to the door. In one corner, two bicycles were stacked against the wall next to a wheelchair.
The Santa and Mrs. Claus figures retrieved from the cleanup at Fourth Avenue had been placed on their sides on top of a bag. Their owner is in a shelter now, said Chris Potter, division director of Finance and Administrative Services, and the city is storing her gear for later.
People’s possessions stay at the location for 60 days before the city donates the items or throws them away.
The unit was mostly empty the week before Christmas, but SDOT Field Operations Manager Kenny Alcantara said he expected it will get full very soon given a heavy schedule of cleanups the city would be conducting over the next couple weeks.