Miserable, rainy Tuesdays are a hallmark of Seattle life. For the remaining campers at Lower Woodland Park’s unsanctioned encampment, May 10 was an exceptionally miserable one. It was the day that Mayor Bruce Harrell finally made good on his January promise to sweep the camp.
City vehicles lined the parking lot on the park’s northeast side, with cop cars studded throughout the park. Around 9 a.m., city cleanup crews waited while mutual aid workers, their cars sliding around in the mud, helped remaining campers pack. Outreach workers scrambled around the last few tents, hoping to connect people with space in tiny home villages and shelters. Members of the Lived Experience Commission (LEC) handed out donuts. Several dozen cops stood by as city workers cordoned off the abandoned belongings in the main camp area and brought in backhoes. Right-wing journalist Jonathan Choe showed up to livestream it in a white tracksuit, earning him the usual black umbrellas and angry shouts from Stop the Sweeps activists. Everyone got soaked.
For anyone who’s seen a sweep recently, it was a pretty familiar scene. However, in contrast to the mayor’s blitz-style approach toward downtown encampments, this sweep came after three months of outreach by workers from REACH and the city’s HOPE team.
Borrowing from the more ponderous approach applied towards the Ballard Commons encampment, which was cleared on Dec. 7, 2021, Woodland Park outreach workers began with a “by-name” list of 61 unsheltered people staying in the park back in February. Given a loose guarantee that the park wouldn’t be swept, or at least not immediately, they then got to work getting to know the individuals on the “by-name” list and getting them housed. As of April 28, 30 people on that list had moved to permanent housing, tiny houses or shelters, per a blog post by Harrell’s communications director Jamie Housen.
In an interview after the sweep, Councilmember Dan Strauss, who pushed for the slower approach to outreach that was applied at Ballard Commons and was also involved with the Woodland Park efforts, praised the new approach.
“What is most important to me is that we do systems change, and Ballard Commons was kind of the proof of concept. Woodland Park has been able to be the second [one]. But I think we have more work to do,” he said.
Indeed, while the majority of people on the City’s list were connected with housing, there were a lot more people living in the park as the sweep approached. That had a lot to do with the City’s recent spate of sweeps in downtown and the CID, suggested Ed Mast, who runs a neighborhood group that distributes aid to campers.
“I do know that REACH and the HOPE team are trying to outreach to everyone,” Mast said. “What has happened since February is that a bunch of new people have moved into the park. Some of them from other sweeps. From this new regime, this onslaught of sweeps.”
A separate list, compiled by controversial advocate Bruce Drager, who lives across from the park and visited it daily to check in with campers, showed 55 campers still present in the park the week before the sweep. Accounting for how many campers were housed leading up to the sweep, that represents a significant influx of campers to the park.
“We kept being asked for updates on numbers of folks still in the park, and we kept having to give the same number,” said Aislinn Bauer, an outreach care coordinator for REACH’s North Seattle team. Her organization attended regular meetings with Councilmember Strauss and Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington, who handles homelessness policy for the Mayor’s office. Bauer added that it definitely had to do with other sweeps.
“Through talking with these new people, it’s folks that were being swept from other places in the city. So, are sweeps the answer? No. I don’t know what the answer is, though,” she said.
According to a statement from the city issued after the sweep, “[t]he HOPE Team and REACH identified 21 people experiencing homelessness onsite prior to the beginning of the encampment removal. The HOPE Team had 42 enhanced shelter and tiny house village units available, and all individuals identified by outreach residing onsite were offered shelter.”
While shelter was available to everyone who stayed up until the sweep, the availability of shelter doesn’t really resolve the question of whether people get adequate shelter while they’re being swept.
Journalist Erica C. Barnett of PubliCola recently reported on the growing disconnect between shelter intake and shelter referrals. Data she obtained from the City showed that the percentage of people referred to shelter — already averaging less than 50 percent — who actually show up and stay a night there has fallen to around 33 percent in the first two months of the year.
For some campers caught up in the Woodland Park sweep, this was their reality. Jose and Bill, who gave only their first names, had been there for about a year and a half. Both said the day of the sweep was the first day they’d spoken to an outreach worker. Both had been referred to enhanced shelter — Bauer said around 11 a.m. that space in tiny house villages had been exhausted — and both said they wouldn’t be going.
For Jose, it had a lot to do with his previous experiences in housing. He was in a hotel, thanks to a voucher, until he wasn’t, when he claims that workers there said his “lodging expired.”
“I was already in a program and they kicked me back out to the street,” he said. “Why would I start over?”
Bill packed the canopy of his white Ford Ranger full of their belongings, as the cops popped in to remind them they had an hour left. Asked where they’d go next, Jose didn’t know.
“Where can you go? Where’s legal to go? That’s what we were asking,” he said.
A teenaged camper, who gave his name as Lewis, said he’d declined a spot in the new Rainier Beach tiny home village because it was too far south. His grandmother lives in a tiny home village on 125th and Aurora, and he considers himself a caregiver for her. The commute from Rainier Beach to Aurora would be too far, he said, so he plans on pitching a tent close to his grandmother’s village until the HOPE team can find him a spot. However, he doesn’t have a cell phone.
Though the city cannot release it for privacy reasons, Kim Garcia was almost surely on the “by-name” list, having been camping in a centrally located tent for over eight months. However, on the day of the sweep, she was still left in the lurch. While her husband, whom she recently split with, had been assigned a tiny home, she had been hesitant to accept one. As she told Real Change in a previous interview, “I am severely claustrophobic, like really bad. I can’t even close the door at a doctor’s appointment because I’ll pass out.” Tent life never bothered her because she spent most of her time outside, and even being inside the tent didn’t feel the same as being in a small room.
She spent much of the morning in tears, packing her stuff into a U-Haul with the help of mutual aid volunteers and trying to get her beat up Windstar to start. At the last minute, outreach workers were able to find her a tiny home that had four windows, convincing her it was worth a try.
One of the major challenges outreach workers face is getting people at a sweep to accept housing, especially if it isn’t ideal. Time helps — thus the slower, multi-phase outreach approach — but for many people experiencing homelessness, some forms of shelter are still not preferable to the street. Bauer said that tiny home villages with enough space for several people or households to move together were their most popular offering, followed by individual tiny home placements and enhanced shelter, respectively.
Ultimately, beyond being simply sad stories, these campers’ experiences highlight what could be a significant legal hangup for the sweeps going forward. Martin vs Boise, the Idaho case that established a requirement for cities to prove that there were available shelter beds before ejecting unhoused individuals from parks and public spaces, devotes an entire section to a discussion of what determines whether a shelter bed is or is not available to an unhoused individual.
Julia Mizutani, an ACLU lawyer working on their lawsuit against the city of Seattle over the sweeps, said that determining whether an unhoused individual can reasonably accept an offer of shelter is an important and ongoing question when it comes to determining the legality of sweeps. How should we define adequate shelter? Mizutani suggested that it should be up to the people we’re asking to accept it:
“It is open. I think it’s an open question. But as far as deciding where people should be going, I think that’s really up to the individuals who are impacted. It’s up to the unhoused community to decide what a meaningful referral looks like.”
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor of Real Change.
Read more of the May 18-24, 2022 issue.