To borrow from Yogi Berra, the recent escalation in homeless sweeps is “déjà vu all over again.” From the 2008 protocols that guide present day campsite clearances to the “consistent and compassionate” rhetoric coming from the Mayor Ed Murray’s office, I can’t escape the feeling of having been here before.
To be clear, homeless advocates have never been happy with the Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules (MDAR 08-01) created under the Greg Nickels administration. Three administrations later, the problems with these protocols remain unaddressed.
So far, the mayor has been unwilling to reexamine these policies. Here, in a nutshell, are the unresolved issues with Seattle’s campsite clearance protocols.
Red Dots/Blue Dots: As part of the mayor’s briefing to City Council on sweeps, a map was shown of unauthorized encampments in Seattle. Red dots signified encampments of three or more tents. Blue dots showed sites with two or less. The score as of December was 34 red dots and 102 blue dots. Why the distinction? Red dots are defined as “encampments” and areas where the rules in the MDAR apply. Blue dots are merely “camps,” which may be removed without observing any of the niceties. It’s a major loophole in the application of the rules, and the city has never answered this objection.
The 60-Day Rule: This is the other large loophole crafted under the Nickels administration and enshrined in the current rules. If a site has been cleared three times within 60 days, the formalities of posting clearance warnings, doing site outreach and storage of possessions are no longer necessary. Nor do protocols need to be observed if there is “suspicion” of illegal activity. Tents and belongings in these areas may be swept on sight.
Possession Storage: Rules governing what should be saved for retrieval or treated as garbage are unclear at best. The Seattle Department of Transportation operates under the assumption that only items with an estimated value of $100 or more must be saved. In practice, this means that almost everything gets treated as garbage and that having one’s encampment swept almost always means losing whatever was left behind. Tents, clothes, sleeping bags, ID, medication: These are almost always treated as trash.
Outreach to Nowhere: Human Services Director Catherine Lester offers that 288 “new beds” have been created under the Mayor’s State of Emergency. About half of these of these are in tents, within sanctioned encampments on city property. This new capacity creates room for roughly one-tenth of the 2,813 unsheltered people found in Seattle during the 2015 One Night Count. While progress has certainly been made on this question since the Nickels administration, all claims of sufficient capacity should be regarded with extreme suspicion.
While Murray has done more to extend services to unsheltered homeless people than any of his recent predecessors, this doesn’t mean he gets a pass on his radical escalation of homeless sweeps.
A truly “consistent and compassionate” approach means that campsite clearances actually occur under consistent rules. The current protocols fall far short of this.
It means that outreach workers have the time needed to build relationships and trust. Seventy-two-hours notice with workers coming by only between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. does not meet this bar.
And it means that when people’s possessions are confiscated, the procedures err toward protection of personal property, not the convenience of clean-up crews.
There are two opportunities coming up for community members to make their voices heard on Seattle’s homeless sweeps.
On Jan. 29, Real Change is hosting “a day of witness and mourning” after the evening of the 2016 One Night Count. We will strike a gong on City Hall plaza once for every unsheltered person found in King County. This year, we are highlighting the sweeps, and asking for a more just approach to unauthorized camping.
On Feb. 10, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw’s Human Services committee will hear public testimony and homeless people’s concerns with the campsite clearances, and most of the Council will be in attendance. Please mark your calendar to attend.
A truly “consistent and compassionate” approach to homeless encampments is within this city’s grasp, but your voice is needed to make the rhetoric real.