A group of homeless advocates, providers and one homeless person have begun a review of the city of Seattle’s homeless sweeps policies, even as the city waits to find out if a federal judge will put a temporary halt to the practices altogether.
The committee, convened by former Mayor Ed Murray and Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, has a year to review the Multidepartmental Administrative Rules (MDARs), the guidelines that lay out when and how homeless encampments can be cleared. At the end of the process, the committee will deliver a report with recommendations about how well they’re being carried out and if the policies need to be improved.
The work of the 14-person committee — half appointed by Murray, half by the City Council — follows a 2016 task force that was asked to recommend improvements to the rules originally drafted in 2008 under Mayor Greg Nickels. The process was criticized as unfocused to the point that task force members broke off and made recommendations on their own, which were then mostly approved by the group.
The new group will analyze the data collected at encampment cleanups, as well as the process by which the cleanups are executed, to determine if specially trained police officers, called the Navigation Team, and outreach workers are following the updated rules that formally came into effect in April.
The Sept. 12 meeting was technically the second, following an initial gathering in July. Representatives from the Navigation Team and Chris Potter, director of the Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) department, presented the approach outlined in the policy, the data available for the committee and aspects of the work currently in progress.
The policy requires that outreach teams give campers 72 hours notice that their camp will be swept with two exceptions. The first is if the camp represents a hazard, and the second if it falls into one of a possible 10 declared “emphasis areas,” which are designated with signage and can be swept at any time.
Items found during a sweep should be stored and returned to the owner through a delivery service, unless the item appears to be garbage. That decision is left up to the employee conducting the cleanup. All people swept must be offered a safe alternative and services.
Encampment Actions •4,667 contacts •1,251 unduplicated contacts with individuals • 463 referrals accepted to “safe alternatives” to camping outside
According to the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, the city has conducted 88 sweeps that follow those rules and 47 sweeps for “hazards or obstruction.” That can include tents that are lined up on or near a freeway, where the campers are in imminent danger as are drivers.
Of those 135 cleanups, workers stored items in 89 cases. In two cleanups, campers did not get the required 72 hours notice, and in one of those cases the camper received no outreach.
FAS reports 4,667 total contacts with 1,251 people roughly between February and August of 2017. In this time, 463 referrals were accepted to safe alternatives.
The data sets have holes, Potter told the committee: the collection timelines overlap, there is little information on the size of encampments and items that are stored and there’s restricted access to the Homeless Management Information System, where service providers store information about clients, for confidentiality reasons.
That means it’s hard to know if people who receive services fall back into homelessness.
In progress: a racial equity toolkit that’s specific to homeless sweeps. People of color are disproportionately likely to be homeless and are disproportionately represented in the population of unauthorized encampments compared to authorized tent cities.
Sweeps are not using the city’s baseline race equity toolkit, a fact that angered one committee member.
The next meeting of the committee is Oct. 10 at 6 p.m. in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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