On Oct. 13, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a proposed budget that contained sweeping changes to his Unified Care Team (UCT), a group overseen by Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington and tasked with the removal of unauthorized encampments on city property, colloquially known as “sweeps.”
The team — formed in January 2022, at the outset of the Harrell administration — is a clearinghouse for all things encampment-related: fielding complaints from residents, inspecting encampment sites, prioritizing them for removal and conducting the actual removals.
The group, which consisted of about 52.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees in 2022, would be renewed and expanded. The mayor has included 61 FTEs in the proposed 2023 budget, expanding the cost of the UCT from $23.5 million to $38.17 million. Both of those numbers include 40.5 FTEs funded with “one-time” money in 2022.
“FTE” is a term that reflects the amount of work completed based on a typical, 40-hour work week. “Departments used a combination of temp hiring, redeployment, and other strategies to complete the work that was funded by the 2022 one-time investments,” said Harrell spokesperson Jamie Housen in an email.
Harrell said in his Oct. 13 remarks that the additional staffers will do work related to outreach and community engagement.
The UCT’s proposed budget represents a significant increase in investment, signaling that Harrell is all-in on this approach to addressing encampments. Harrell and Washington also used the press conference to outline major changes in what that approach will be. The biggest one? Geographic sub-teams.
“Our budget describes a transition from the Unified Care Team from one [that’s] citywide focused to geographically based teams,” Harrell said. “What that means is such that the team’s actually on the ground doing that work. They can be sort of subject matter experts in their particular areas. Working with people. Working with community-based organizations. Working with advocates.”
The presentation focused heavily on handling complaints about encampments, though Harrell emphasized, “It's not a shift to respond to angry callers versus an emphasis on housing people. It's just a more effective means to communicate and collaborate with everybody.”
At a Oct. 14 city council meeting, Washington noted that the UCT had already cleared a backlog of 1,500 complaints and was currently receiving 150 a day.
She described one of the UCT’s weekly meetings with neighbors and businesses near the Woodland Park encampment, where attendees were able to bring up issues around the encampment in person. Many were upset about campers driving through a fence to gain access to the park. The neighbors wanted to know, Washington said, “Can outreach … go talk to folks and say, ‘We’re trying to slow-walk this process to give enough time for folks to get into housing. Whoever is driving vehicles through the fence, help us help you — please stop.’” REACH workers did just that, Washington said, resolving the complaint.
Communicating with housed neighbors about how their complaints are being handled will be key, Washington said, because homelessness isn’t going away anytime soon. A slide outlining the city’s “key observations” simply read: “There are not enough places for people to go.”
Another focus of the Oct. 14 presentation was how the city’s approach meshed with King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA), the group tasked with providing housing and shelter to unhoused individuals.
To give KCRHA time to fulfill that responsibility, the city will adopt the slower approach to sweeps employed by JustCARE, an intensive outreach program originally funded through one-time federal money. That model gives outreach workers time to collect information about an encampment’s residents and then work to find housing that meets each camper’s specific needs. Going forward, Housen wrote that the city will try to give KCRHA 60 days notice before conducting a removal.
Asked if it was now city policy to give KCRHA two months of outreach before all removals and if no-notice removals will continue for encampments deemed obstructions or hazards to human health, Housen said only, “Our goal is to ensure there is enough time to build relationships and make meaningful connections to shelter or housing. Moving into geographic teams will support continuous engagement and relationship development with unhoused neighbors, local businesses, and the housed community. This ongoing engagement will support service providers to make the right service connections and ensure service delivery efforts led by the [KC]RHA and operational efforts led by the City are coordinated and delivered in a way that best drives progress.”
The city will maintain its HOPE team under the UCT banner, which offers housing during and sometimes before a sweep, but, “The mayor's proposal is for [KCRHA’s] System Navigators to broaden their work to serve as regional coordinators for the geographic teams, working closely with our partners and community to ensure we are nimble and responsive to emerging needs and making the right resource connections,” Housen wrote.
Anne Martens, KCRHA’s communications director, said the organization also hasn’t gotten any specifics about how that dynamic will play out.
“My understanding is that much of the details here are still being discussed, but we are working to improve coordination with the UCT, while maintaining our focus on intensive outreach and dignified emergency housing or permanent housing,” she wrote in an email.
At that City Council budget session, Councilmember Andrew Lewis questioned how the team will reduce displacement, which happens when encampment residents can’t or won’t accept shelter during a removal.
“Are we adequately tracking the number of people who are refusing those offers? And then are we tracking the reason why they’re refusing those offers, so that we can better adjust our practice to reduce the amount of … displacement?” he asked.
The city tracks when people experiencing homelessness refuse an offer of shelter but not why they do so. The Human Services Department is beginning to track that information and will make it public, Senior Operations Manager Lindsey Garrity told councilmembers.
“I feel like most of what I get right now is anecdotal information on the reason for rejections, and I’d like data,” Lewis said.
At Woodland Park, approximately 89 encampment residents were connected with housing or shelter that worked for them. While the city announced this number to the media, it did not share information about how many people were displaced during the sweep. Anecdotally, plenty of people were.
One camper, named Lewis, was offered a tiny home in the Rainier Beach tiny home village but couldn’t accept as it would put him too far from his grandmother, who lived in the one near Bitter Lake. A camper named Jose, who refused an offer of a bed in an “enhanced” shelter, told this journalist, “I was already in a program, and they kicked me back out to the street. Why would I start over?”
Even with added privacy measures, like cubicle walls, many unhoused individuals simply won’t enter the shelter system. Tiny houses are vastly more popular, but they are consistently at or near capacity. On Oct. 24, the city’s shelter availability webpage showed two open beds at the Salvation Army’s William Booth Center and two spots at the Camp Second Chance tiny home village in White Center.
KCRHA recently awarded a $1.9 million contract to the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) to create an RV “safe lot,” where vehicle residents can park without fear of being ticketed or towed. The proposed safe lot will be able to accommodate 35 vehicles and was originally projected to be completed this winter. On top of the $1.9 million already awarded, the mayor’s proposed budget for 2023 includes $5.8 million to provide ongoing funding to the lot that’s already underway and add more lots to provide 101 new spaces. A Human Services Department budget presentation estimated that, with turnover, the completed lots would eventually serve 195 vehicles per year. Per the presentation outlining the new UCT, there are currently 273 vehicles being used as living spaces in Seattle.
In response to a question about whether the city will stop making vehicle residents move, Housen wrote, “The City will continue to enforce right-of-way laws at the same time that we enhance and improve efforts to connect those living in vehicles with services, shelter, and housing. The City is actively supporting KCRHA’s efforts to create RV safe lots, including Mayor Harrell’s proposed budget to expand safe lot options.”
As reported by the West Seattle Blog, on Oct. 20, the city moved a large contingent of RV residents living outside South Seattle College. Bruce Drager, an independent homelessness advocate, said another group was recently cleared from nearby West Ewing Park, where a tent encampment remains. That group, he noted, included a man named Pedro, who was recently swept from a small tract of land between the Aurora Avenue Home Depot’s parking lot and the Halcyon Mobile Home Park.
Drager also shared a screenshot of what he claimed was the city’s calendar of upcoming encampment removals. It included 14 items marked as removals or RV mitigations. The city does not share its schedule of sweeps with the public, and Housen declined to comment on the veracity of the screenshot. The image shows a planned sweep in Ravenna Park on Oct. 27; three people camping in the park, contacted on Oct. 19, said they hadn’t spoken to any outreach workers.
As suggested by the screenshot, a 72-hour notice to vacate went up in Ravenna Park on Oct. 25. Campers contacted by Drager that day said they still hadn’t talked to any outreach workers.
Read more of the Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 2022 issue.