Alex Hutchinson is no stranger to sweeps. The former Floridian found himself on the streets of Seattle after his tools and personal documents were stolen from his vehicle. He ended up in encampments and, eventually, got caught between the need for a place to sleep and cleanup crews.
When the cleaners came, Hutchinson wasn’t concerned — moving wasn’t a big deal to him. But that wasn’t true of a woman in the same encampment whose accumulation of belongings made it extremely difficult to leave.
She was crying.
“It was heartbreaking,” he said. “I couldn’t take it, I couldn’t take watching her go through it, losing her shit. The next morning, they came with the bulldozers and she was still fucking there.”
He helped her make five trips to carry her things across a street before his injured back stopped him, but she continued trying to cross a busy road at rush hour in an attempt to save the only things that she had.
And that was the most ridiculous part of the ordeal: For all of the time, effort, pain and tears that the cleanup caused, the campers simply moved across the street, to another unauthorized location.
A coalition of homeless advocates and legal organizations released proposed legislation Aug. 24 that could change the way the city uses sweeps, turning them from a blunt force instrument wielded in the name of health and safety to a precise scalpel capable of solving problems without causing new ones.
The proposed legislation — championed by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH), Columbia Legal Services, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU), Seattle Community Law Center, Public Defender’s Association and the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project — does not seek to prohibit all cleanups.
Instead, it requires that cleanups come after a series of other steps, including outreach to homeless individuals and offers of housing prior to the sweep. It defines “sufficient outreach” in detail and dictates how notice will be given to the encampments.
If alternative housing isn’t available, but the encampment has created harmful conditions or is in an unsafe or unsuitable location, the sweep can go forward as long as notice has been given, a new campsite has been identified and the city has already made an effort to clean up any problems and provide access to hygiene and trash services.
If the legislation were enacted tomorrow, it would have the immediate effect of stopping all sweeps while the city works to meet the new requirements. While some members of the advocacy community have called for that outcome, that’s not the sole purpose, said Yurij Rudensky, an attorney for the Economic Justice Project at Columbia Legal Services.
“It may appear that this is trying to prevent the city from taking action, and it’s not,” Rudensky said. “It’s to make sure actions the city is taking are effective.”
The proposed ordinance will move forward at the same time that a new Cleanup Protocol Task Force convened by Mayor Ed Murray begins its work examining how sweeps are conducted.
City Hall invited Columbia Legal Services and the ACLU to participate in the task force, but they declined to participate.
“We don’t want to be part of a task force that is trying to develop a new framework,” Rudensky said. “We’ve done the work, put it into a proposed ordinance. We’d like to see that move forward and move forward very soon.”
The organization would not rule out participation if the task force is meant to talk about how to implement the proposed legislation, he said.
There is one such body built into the legislation that would be made up of 11 people handpicked by city councilmembers and the mayor. The fact that it would not include outside voices concerned David Delgado, a formerly homeless advocate for the homeless and member of Operation Jungle Defense.
Operation Jungle Defense is a grassroots group of homeless and housed individuals who fought against Murray’s proposed sweep of The Jungle, a decades old refuge for homeless people who do not fit into traditional categories helped by shelters. The group testified before the City Council and held actions on the patio in front of City Hall.
Although Delgado agreed with the majority of the content in the legislation — muttering “Yes!” several times as he went through each line with a pen — any implementation group needs people who aren’t in organizations that have to compete for funding, he said.
“They need to start finding social workers who are willing to work themselves out of business,” Delgado said.
Members of the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE) wrote in a letter that they were surprised to be left out of the development of the sweeps legislation.
“None of the advocates who signed the letter even appeared to be living in an unsanctioned encampment,” they wrote in the letter, which was signed by more than 20 members.
Sweeps have been a codified part of the Seattle homelessness playbook since a series of procedures called the Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules (MDARS) were released under former Mayor Greg Nickels in 2008.
The rules and their enforcement have come under scrutiny as a result of accusations that they are not enforced uniformly and that they do nothing more than push people around the city, sometimes depriving them of the very things they need to improve their situation, such as identification or medicines.
Murray formally created the task force on Aug. 19 to look at the MDARS and make recommendations on where to go from there. The legislation by the advocacy community already answers those questions by making the rules, in their current form, obsolete, Rudensky said.
“One of the issues with the MDARS is that the fact that they’re administrative rules,” Rudensky said. “Administrative rules are ultimately up to the discretion of the executive and administration as to how they’re going to be implemented.”
That creates variability from administration to administration. The best-known example is the “Al Poole memo,” instructions from then-division director at the Human Services Department Al Poole about how to proceed with encampment cleanups.
An ordinance would not allow that flexibility, forging what advocates hope would be a clear, consistent set of policies that hold the force of law.
The proposed ordinance has been in the works for the better part of a year.
Columbia Legal Services got involved when it was approached by SKCCH after Murray declared a state of emergency around homelessness in November 2015.
In December, Columbia Legal Services, the ACLU and skcch sent a letter to the City Council urging them to stop sweeping people without giving them another place to go and to engage with the advocacy community to develop more humane procedures.
Since then, the coalition has been gathering information from other areas engaged in similar efforts, including San Jose, California, which had to work with an entrenched unhoused community to get its members into shelter.
The resulting document thrilled many people in the homeless services community.
“It’s a huge change, and a huge change for the positive,” said Polly Trout, executive director of the Buddhist nonprofit Patacara, an organization that has been supporting unauthorized homeless encampments. “There’s literally no better place to go right now, I’d like to see that change, that no one has to camp. But we’re a long way from that.”
Dahkota Beckham, who works in homeless services and was formerly homeless as a teen, said that the legislation is encouraging but that it doesn’t include explicit language for populations such as youth under 18, particularly those who are LGBTQ, who can’t go to most shelters and have taken to encampments as a last resort.
Many young people are running from something, she said.
“It might not be safe or clean, but it’s all they have,” Beckham said.
The City Council is on break through Sept. 5, and budget discussions begin at the end of September. Rob Johnson, councilmember for District 4 and supporter of the legislation, said that new protocols could be put in place before the budget session really starts going.
“There’s a lot of different ideas of how to move forward. My hope is that as we get into the discussion about proposed legislation and the recommendations from the announced task force, for those to meet and consider both before winter arrives,” Johnson said.