He’s no longer ordering the clearances of people and their possessions from urban campsites. So Sgt. Paul Gracy of the Seattle Police Department has been traveling to roadsides, underpasses, forests, and thickets with a different aim: camera in hand, he collects evidence of mounting litter and debris in the places where homeless people are making their beds.
Up to a few weeks ago Gracy, as head of the West Precinct’s Community Policing Team, fielded complaints from city officials and citizens alike alerting him to incidents of people sleeping in public places — mostly, along the highways and byways of Seattle. Cell phones and emails have helped those complaints proliferate.
“There are so many different mechanisms in place to let the public report issues, and it just takes a microsecond: you just pull out your phone and say ‘I’m driving along 99 on the south end of the Aurora bridge, there are four or five tents there; why don’t you do something about it?’”
These days, Gracy says, what he does is pass the complaint up to the mayor’s office, which has begun what city officials call a case-by-case surmisal of the need for clearing out a campsite on public land.
Gracy’s change of tack comes after public discussion over the city’s stepping up its sweeps of homeless people’s camps, even as outreach and viable alternatives are scarce to nonexistent (“Swept but still Dirty,” Oct. 31).
Still, it’s unclear whether or not the number of city-ordered sweeps is going down. Department of Corrections workcrew manager Jim Thorburn says he’s getting fewer requests from city officials to clear out specific areas. The DOC’s community service workers are continuing encampment clearances in 10 areas they identified as “hot spots” — highly visible camping areas that are the subject of frequent complaints by passersby.
Gracy says those complaints have gone up and that incidents of camping, too, are increasing. Near Kinnear Park, on the southwest end of Queen Anne, he counts three new camps since last week.
Trekking through the greenbelt “is part of my function,” says Gracy; “I have to manage my resources, manage what’s going on in my precinct so we can respond accordingly.”
Gracy says he often asks people without shelter downtown how he can help.
“We don’t want to move these people on, we don’t like to arrest them,” he says, but “we get complaints from businesses… and we have to do something.”
In this he’s had guidance: he and two other officers, one from the mental-health specialist Crisis Intervention Team, traveled to Los Angeles last January to watch how police interacted with people on that city’s Skid Row. At Chief Gil Kerlikowske’s request, he met with members of the city’s force who take a regular census of the 50-square block area.
While the LAPD has increased its staffing for this effort, Gracy says police resources are better used in crimefighting pursuits. With no one else to help, he’s made an effort to get information about area social services.
“By default, we run into these people a lot, so it’s nice to have that knowledge. I would think this should be more of a human service provider function, to truly do the outreach.”
Of making contact with homeless campers, he says, “I could dedicate resources to this on a daily basis. This is all you do: we’re going to go hit camps. There is definitely a need for it.”
Alison Eisinger of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness says it’s good news that requests for sweeps have gone down.
“For many, many people there simply aren’t alternatives,” she says. “Without sufficient housing, shelter, and emergency services, people will continue to live outside. Making their lives more difficult and more dangerous only makes it more difficult for our community to seriously address the crisis in front of us.”