The city of Seattle knows how much things cost. Just page through the city’s Open Data site, a public website that publishes public data, including expenditures. You can find the line-item for festivals in 2013 ($1,481,593), the going rate of a 2002 Dodge Neon fleet vehicle at auction ($3,650), or the percentage of the public health budget that’s spent on asthma awareness and prevention (just over 1 percent).
What you can’t find, though, is the total dollar amount that the city has spent clearing unsanctioned encampments since former Mayor Ed Murray declared homelessness to be a state of emergency two years ago.
In fact — despite investigations, public disclosure requests and interviews with various elected officials and government employees — no one seems to have a firm grasp on exactly how much money it costs to clear out encampments, whether it’s three tents on the side of the freeway or the belongings of hundreds of residents living in the East Duwamish Greenbelt, also known as The Jungle.
This is in part because there is no specific budget or expenditure category for sweeps. The city doesn’t use that phrase at all, referring to everything as “cleanups” or “removals.” And a lot are never counted. According to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two homeless women, the city has conducted more than 1,000 sweeps since 2015. The city, however, tallies just a hundred or so during all of 2017.
There is no comprehensive way to account for what occurs during a sweep. There’s no single department or agency that’s fully responsible for them; at least seven agencies are named in the city’s authorization report.
There is also nowhere to find it in the budget because there is no comprehensive way to account for what occurs during a sweep. There’s no single department or agency that’s fully responsible for them; at least seven agencies are named in the city’s authorization report, which details why the sweeps have continued and gives clearance to those departments. Sweeps require a lot of human power including, but not limited to, police overtime, paperwork, logging of personal belongings collected, SDOT involvement, waste management services, visits from public health officials and, in some cases, hourly labor by private contractors.
To find an estimate of what sweeps have already cost taxpayers, you’d need to tally all of those components and more. Real Change’s Ashley Archibald found in June that the city had awarded $1 million to private companies for cleanup services; Councilmember Kshama Sawant called it a “misallocation.” By the city’s own numbers, more than 3,000 tons of garbage have been collected from the sweeps since March — though they don’t note what is actual waste and what are personal belongings that have been thrown away. King County’s Natural Resources and Parks Solid Waste Division charges customers about $447,000 to haul that much refuse.
A memo from Council Central Staff shows a total of more than $4.3 million spent on unsanctioned encampments to clean up 6 million pounds of trash through July of 2017.
A memo from Council Central Staff shows a total of more than $4.3 million spent on unsanctioned encampments to clean up 6 million pounds of trash through July of 2017. That includes tallies of labor costs, supplies and overtime. The memo notes expenses including $570,000 on fencing, $1.2 million for SDOT operations, and $523,000 on “equipment and other.”
Looking ahead, the city has $55.2 million set aside for homelessness strategies and solutions, some of which go toward those who are being swept. This is especially critical as the 2018 budget looms — how much will the city put aside for the sweeps if they do continue?
Police officers with special training are typically deployed to encampments before and during a sweep; for 2018, the city has proposed a budget that includes $182,400 for police overtime alone, as well as $182,000 for overtime of Seattle Public Utilities employees. The city set aside $452,000 for “tipping fees,” as well as $160,000 for “safety, support and supplies.”
According to the memo, the budget for the city’s homeless emergency response — which includes funding the groups responsible for conducting sweeps — is $3.4 million. That’s less than the 2017 expenditure, but not by much. It’s also three times the amount earmarked for the Community Police Commission, about $1 million more than they intend to spend on school safety cameras and about 6 percent of the total expenditures planned for the Homelessness Strategy and Investment budget.
Some of the labor for sweeps, though, came cheap. Last year the city’s Human Rights Commission urged Murray to stop using inexpensive prison labor, stating that “by employing DOC labor rather than city employees, the city is outsourcing an essential government function (with constitutional implications) to workers who are neither fairly compensated nor directly accountable to the municipality.”
Another crucial part of the sweeps is the promise of services to residents. Murray and his staff were always adamant that it was necessary to offer shelter, medical treatment or other services as a part of clearing encampments. The Union Gospel Mission was in charge of that aspect and, as a nonprofit, the city didn’t pay them a dime for the pleasure — though anecdotally, their efficacy has been questioned, and many people experiencing homelessness still state that they have never received an offer of service.
In spite of the fact that sweeps have become a critical campaign issue — not just in the November mayoral race but also at the state, city and county level — there’s little interest in figuring out the economics of this process. But that is, perhaps, by design. The city of Seattle has gone out of its way to tell the public why the sweeps must continue and where they’re occurring, but the lack of a price tag is conspicuous.
The cost of encampment sweeps is bigger than a single rough dollar figure, though, and there’s an additional question that lingers regarding the usefulness of the sweeps, and whether or not the city is throwing bad money after good.
Sweeps, in essence, address only the optics of a situation.
Advocates at Union Gospel Mission say that with each sweep they hope to get at least 50 percent of the encampment’s occupants into shelter. But by their own admission, they rarely hit that number, meaning the sweeps are more effective at moving people in the short term than they are at solving a problem in the long-term. A September sweep of residents living under the Spokane Street bridge found a little more than 10 percent of residents moving into shelter, most of which was temporary.
Compared to other agencies that provide direct, tangible services — like Plymouth Housing, which successfully houses hundreds of residents in permanent, supportive residences — it’s hard to see the outreach conducted during sweeps as particularly high-impact. Sweeps, as advocates such as Councilmember Kshama Sawant have noted again and again, are more disruptive than focused on housing or safety.
This ongoing issue was evident after The Jungle was swept and many residents were told by city officials to head to the new encampment, considered semi-sanctioned, on Royal Brougham Way. The encampment, which became known as The Field of Dreams, quickly became full. And, though the city did encourage people to occupy that space when they were forced to leave The Jungle, they did not provide sufficient garbage service, leading to an infestation of rats.
As a result, The Field was summarily swept as well. Many of its residents are in other encampments now, awaiting the next sweep.
Because they rarely help individuals seek treatment, sweeps do not address the public health issues that are directly linked to homelessness and cost taxpayers millions in health care. Because the garbage pickup is often piecemeal and doesn’t prevent future littering (a pilot project launched last year has attempted to correct this), they do not address the environmental impact of poverty and its long-term effects and damage. Because the area that is swept is often reinhabited quickly, they do not address pollution to groundwater or ecological destruction.
Sweeps, in essence, address only the optics of a situation, regardless of what the proponents have concluded, because there is little data to show that the money has actually reduced homelessness.
If sweeps were working, they’d have worked by now. Instead, the city of Seattle continues to funnel unknown sums of money into a solution that solves very little.
Special Report: Understanding sweeps
Why Sweep? The swirling logic behind Seattle’s mass evictions of unauthorized camps
Rough count: How the city has counted the sweeps has changed over the years
An unending cycle: While the city wrangles over policy, homeless people are trying to survive
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice.
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