In fall 2016, under immense pressure to look tough in the aftermath of a set of brutal murders at a shanty village, then-Mayor Ed Murray ordered police and other departments to coordinate a mass eviction of The Jungle, a decades-old archipelago of unauthorized tent encampments along and beneath the raised I-5 freeway. Because professional service providers refused to assist with the eviction, Murray relied on a religious shelter provider to perform outreach before the sweep.
“Seattle ... will address decades-old safety and public health issues under I-5,” said Murray in a public statement beforehand. “Through a combination of outreach and services ... we hope to transition those currently living in tents under the freeway into stable shelter, while supporting public safety in the area.”
Hope aside, the stated goal of The Jungle eviction was simply to evict The Jungle.
“What the city wanted to do was to empty out The Jungle,” Jeff Lilley, president of that religious shelter, Union Gospel Mission, later told KUOW’s Kate Walters. “The goal was never to say we’re going to provide housing for everyone in The Jungle.”
And they didn’t.
Hundreds of campers who’d previously found refuge from the elements and authorities under the rumbling belly of I-5 were forced to relocate to other neighborhoods such as the International District or to The Field of Dreams, a small parcel of grass below and around an I-5 ramp.
After directing campers to The Field and sweeping The Jungle, city authorities withheld needed resources such as wood chips (for mud), gloves, trash bags and fire extinguishers, camper Reavy Washington said this spring. Authorities then used the resulting public health disaster to justify The Field’s mass eviction in March 2017. The resulting refugees went on to face other evictions in other locations, such as the April 11 eviction of Trollsville by the West Seattle Bridge or the June eviction of those same Trolltown campers from a mostly empty parcel in southeast Seattle.
For decades, the city of Seattle has chased houseless campers around in circles, in a slow-motion game of whack-a-mole.
Last year wasn’t the first time Seattle’s Finest chased Seattle’s poorest out of the interstate’s bowels. Seattle leaders have periodically flushed The Jungle, to little lasting effect, in 1994, 1998, 2003 and 2007, and probably also in many other years that I didn’t uncover in my cursory review of The Seattle Times archives. True, the evictions have escalated since former Mayor Ed Murray declared a formal State of Emergency regarding homelessness in fall 2015. But while now conducted on an unprecedented scale, the sweeps themselves are nothing new. For decades, the city of Seattle has chased houseless campers around in circles, in a slow-motion game of whack-a-mole.
I put this question to the architect of the sweeps, Scott Lindsay, current city attorney candidate and former public safety adviser to Murray. Looking back, did he regret sweeping The Jungle?
“If it had been up to me, I would’ve closed The Jungle,” Lindsay said. “Because it was a rape camp.”
Other representatives of the executive branch have similarly defended the evictions for the sake of public safety and health.
“The presence of open sewers, human waste, and hazardous materials throughout the area under the interstate is a threat not only to the residents of the encampments but to State maintenance crews, people travelling on the interstate, and first responders,” wrote Seattle Fire Department Chief Harold Scoggins in a report on The Jungle shortly before its eviction. “The accumulated human and solid waste from several hundred campsites presents a serious health concern and creates conditions ripe for the spread of disease.”
Some neighbors enthusiastically agree.
“I don’t think we as a city should be paying for [someone] who says, ‘Let me live my life. I’m going to live in a tent,’” Cindy Pierce, co-founder of the Neighborhood Safety Alliance (NSA), told me last year. “I don’t like
it. ... You need to follow law, the laws and the rules of the city. I don’t think it’s that difficult.”
Lindsay, Murray, Scoggins and Pierce have all emphasized the depravity and harm sometimes found in unauthorized camps. The city’s Homelessness Response Blog says much the same: “Without access to water, sanitation services, trash services and means for proper food storage, these camps put their already vulnerable residents at risk for illness and the city at risk for a disease outbreak. ... Unsafe structures, open flames and criminal activity create their own hazards.”
In this pro-eviction narrative, unauthorized camps are the site of horrific violence and squalor. Evictions “clean up” that squalor, so the theory goes, by “encouraging” campers to accept shelter and services. Pierce calls this “tough love.”
Seattle doesn’t have nearly enough shelter or housing to absorb the thousands of people living on our streets, even if every camper did want to come in.
By this metric, the sweeps are failing horribly. Seattle doesn’t have nearly enough shelter or housing to absorb the thousands of people living on our streets, even if every camper did want to come in. At the Union Gospel Mission downtown, shelter-stayers sometimes sleep in chairs, according to KUOW’s Joshua McNichols.
But the problem of inadequate shelter is obviated by the fact that the vast majority of evicted campers reject official offers of shelter, typically because it’s unreliable or inadequate. According to a new report by the Office of Civil Rights, 79 percent of campers evicted by the city so far this year either refuse or do not qualify for shelter. Not only are the sweeps not moving people off the street and into shelter or housing, but they can’t work, even in principle, without dramatic increases in shelter and subsidized housing.
Imagine someone trying to push 50 gallons of water into a 10-gallon container. That’s the sweeps, but with people and beds.
Given how fantastically they fail at their stated purpose, the sweeps are hard to justify. So let’s try out a different hypothesis: that the purpose of the evictions is not to mitigate or solve homelessness, but rather to obscure it, to shuffle its evidence around in a kind of human Ponzi scheme.
Evidence from the last year and a half of evictions supports this hypothesis, revealing an agenda concerned not so much with public health and safety as with skirting blame and placating home- and business-owners. Emails between executive staff and constituents, acquired via public disclosure request, show that complaints from homeowners and business owners worried about the effects of visible poverty on their customer base drove the sweeps.
For instance, in an Oct. 8, 2015, email, Fremont Brewing owner and former Seattle City Council candidate Sara Nelson thanked city authorities for sweeping Leary Triangle. In order to keep homeless campers out permanently, she suggested turning the space into a raised flower bed, dog park or skate park. Dana Sims, owner of the music venue El Corazon/The Funhouse, complained via email: “How much filth, lawlessness and complaining does it take? I welcome any actions — sooner rather than later — that truly address the problems at hand — the time for talk and empty promises and actions need to be behind us. These [homeless] kids are harming my business as well as my neighbors.” Robb Anderson of NW Trophy concurred, asking for “another sweep of the area sooner than later.”
Complaints about unauthorized camps “tend to come from commercial areas of neighborhoods,” now-Interim Mayor Tim Burgess said as a councilmember in 2015.
In a 2015 email sent to other staff before Murray decided to declare a State of Emergency, Murray’s chief of staff Mike Fong noted that the problem of houselessness might turn out to be bigger than the city’s ability to address it.
“Because we don’t really fully understand the problem, it is not clear even an extraordinary level of emergency action will put a dent in the homeless challenges on the streets,” he wrote. “We’ve been saying the issues are upstream and wide — so, even immediate interventions may not stem the growing tide.”
Fong was prescient. Despite significant increases in funding for affordable housing and shelter in the past two years (and pursuant increases in the number of people thus housed and serviced), the scale of the problem of affordable housing and unsheltered camping continues to eclipse the scale of Seattle’s immediate and long-term responses. The number of people counted living outside each January rises each year by hundreds, while the City Council scrounges to find funding for existing programs.
In short, Seattle authorities cannot shelter or house all its campers in the short term. There simply isn’t capacity or funding. They can, however, quell neighbors’ complaints and obfuscate the scope of houselessness by constantly sweeping campers from one location to the next.
This human accounting trick is a head-count version of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Squads of sweepers (called “Navigation Teams”) remove campers from one neighborhood by sending them into another.
Neighborhood-based constituents have so far concentrated on keeping the camps out of their own backyards instead of resolving the causes of the camps in the first place.
No one is happy, but the hot-potato of unauthorized camps gets cycled around the city quickly enough that neighborhood-based constituents have so far concentrated on keeping the camps out of their own backyards instead of resolving the causes of the camps in the first place.
Thus, the sweeps chug forward on autopilot, the mayor and advisers who created them long gone and the council that authorized them reluctant to touch the resultant mess. No one wants to get Murray’s shit on their shoes, so his shit-snowball keeps on rolling.
On Halloween, council budget chair Lisa Herbold explained why she removed from her initial balancing package a budget proviso by councilmembers Kshama Sawant, Kirsten Harris-Talley and Mike O’Brien to allow sweeps in locations unsuitable for camping (such as active sidewalks or park space) and to prohibit sweeps at camps in non-problem areas.
“I’m not comfortable making a major policy change about how the executive does this work within the context of our budget discussions this year,” Herbold told her colleagues and the public on Oct. 31. Instead of Sawant’s proposal to reform sweeps immediately, Herbold included a proviso that essentially orders the executive branch to obey its own rules when evicting campers. She hopes this will lead to “incremental” improvements in sweeps.
Harris-Talley replied: “Without actual outcomes of what this is solving, we are hemorrhaging millions of dollars to move people around and not actually addressing houselessness, not actually addressing getting folks off the street. If the [businesses and homeowners] complaining don’t want to see folks in poverty and they want to see them in housing, we need to move those dollars into services and housing.”
Casey Jaywork is a writer and organizer with #HousingForAll Seattle.
Special Report: Understanding sweeps
Rough count: How the city has counted the sweeps has changed over the years
What does a sweep cost, anyway? The ongoing cleanups of unsanctioned encampments have been a keystone campaign issue, yet no one seems to know how much they cost or what they achieve
An unending cycle: While the city wrangles over policy, homeless people are trying to survive
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full November 8 issue.