A report to council members about encampment cleanups during the last four months of 2016 suggests what many in the advocacy community already surmised: storage policies were inconsistent, notice could be spotty and people of color and those with disabilities stayed in unauthorized encampments far more than White people.
From September 2016 through the end of that year, observers from Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights monitored encampment cleanups performed by the city and state. Was sufficient notice and outreach occurring before workers came to sweep? Were workers storing the belongings of those swept? Were the rules of encampment cleanups laid out by the city, also called the MDARs (multi-department administrative rules), being followed?
If the answer to these questions was no, said Brenda Anibarro of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the office halted the sweep.
Of the 50 sweeps OCR monitored, they stopped seven, or roughly 14 percent. OCR observers stopped three in the midst of the sweep, twice because Seattle Police officers left before the cleanup was complete and once because notice was insufficient.
Four times, OCR called off the sweep before it began.
In 2016, the city logged 609 sweeps, averaging 50 sweeps per month.
Mayor Ed Murray ended OCR’s role monitoring the cleanups at the end of 2016. Only in April 2017, when the new MDARs officially came into effect, did OCR finalize a new agreement with the Finance and Administrative Services Department (FAS), which organizes the sweeps.
This new agreement will be “high-level monitoring” of monthly reports with at least one staff person, possibly two, performing spot checks at cleanups, Anibarro said.
FAS reported that the city has not had trouble offering people safe places to go under the new rules. However there was a disconnect between the reality described in OCR’s report and that of FAS four months after OCR’s role was scaled back.
Of those contacted by reach, the provider organization that teams with the police to perform outreach for the sweeps, 29 percent of people were ineligible for shelter because of a criminal record, lack of identification or mental health issue.
These issues disproportionately impact people of color, Anibarro said. The findings that people of color and those with disabilities are found in unauthorized encampments at a higher rate than White people dovetails with a finding by the city of Seattle from authorized encampments just a week before that demonstrated people of color are underrepresented in authorized encampments and shelters.
Though the rules state that FAS must be able to provide a safe alternative to folks before they sweep the camp, they get suspended under certain conditions. If a person is barred, or prohibited from entering, the spot they’re offered due to past behavior, they can be moved along without the promise of shelter, said Chris Potter, director of FAS.
And, if a person camps in any of the potential 10 “emphasis areas,” places identified as problematic by officials, they can be swept without notice. Emphasis areas are loosely defined as places that have been swept before and where, at the moment of designation, no tents remain.
They can be as small or large as the city chooses. Of the seven currently designated, one spans the entire East Duwamish Greenbelt, known as The Jungle. Another is a sliver of space by the Spokane Street Bike Trail.
There was a dwindling supply of appropriate places to offer people with challenges, noted Councilmember Mike O’Brien.
“Unless we’re opening up a Navigation Center every six weeks, do we just stop the sweeps?” he asked, referencing a new, low-barrier shelter that opened July 12. It can house 75 people.
“We hope to avoid a situation where safe alternatives are not available,” Potter said.
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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