Emails obtained by Real Change between Public Defender Association (PDA) executive director Lisa Daugaard, concerned members of the downtown community, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington and other city and county officials show what seem to be discussions of pending removals for two downtown encampments, peppered with explicit acknowledgements of a lack of available or suitable shelter for residents.
Both encampments were near City Hall Park, which was very publicly swept in August 2021. However, that park’s clearance proceedings were the debut of the JustCARE model, a “human-centered model” developed in partnership by a number of outreach agencies and local nonprofits. The model approaches encampment removals with a longer timeline, attempting to get to know all the residents of a given encampment and their particular needs. The goal is to clear the encampment via referrals to housing or appropriate shelter that campers voluntarily accept.
JustCARE was ultimately able to house or shelter 50 people who had been living in the park. However, while only three remained on the day of its final clearance, according to then Real Change reporter and current Stranger reporter Hannah Krieg, there were plenty of other camps in the area.
One camp, under the Yesler Way bridge that goes over Fourth Avenue, was removed on Feb. 4, 2022. PubliCola editor Erica Barnett wrote to Daugaard to ask what role JustCARE played in that removal.
Before responding, Daugaard emailed Washington and Mayor’s Office Director of Communications Jamie Housen to run her response by them. In that email, she wrote, “This was a situation in which we knew there were not what DM Washington calls ‘genuine offers of shelter’ possible for a lot of the folks in that site — this group included quite a few people who have been shuffled from place to place and keep being rejected by, or falling out of, shelter placements because of complex needs.”
Barnett had asked Daugaard whether the encampment was a JustCARE site, noting that, in response to her original inquiry, the Mayor’s Office claimed JustCARE had been working with the campers for two weeks. In characterizing her planned response to Barnett, Daugaard wrote to Washington and Housen, “So it’s accurate to say that we helped address the situation, but we can’t vouch that there were genuine offers of shelter for the remaining group, despite that the HOPE team would have wanted that.”
In April 2022, Daugaard was again looped in on an encampment response, this time by a group of concerned citizens led by Lisa Nitze, a vice president at real estate developer Nitze-Stagen. The group included former Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw.
The chain begins with an email from Nitze-Stagen employee Nicole Parker listing the cross streets of four encampments. That’s followed up by a short email from Bruce Burns, the president of a nearby condominium homeowners’ association, which reads:
“And here is a YouTube video I just shot of 3rd and James this afternoon…Please note the transit station access is also being blocked by a man smoking a crack pipe.”
Nitze then forwarded that to Daugaard, writing, “JustCARE, can you help?”
Daugaard, after mobilizing local outreach agency REACH’s JustCARE field team to assess the encampments, delivered a long and detailed response, written in collaboration with James Sizemore, then an outreach coordinator for REACH. It begins with a statement about the lack of available shelter:
“We will be conferring about how to follow up with each person based on what we learned; besides our pause on placements in JustCARE facilities due to King County’s required close-out plan, President Biden’s visit and the high pace of encampment removals in recent days has absolutely locked up non-JustCARE shelter options, so we weren’t able to immediately identify any placement options for those individuals encountered since this thread was initiated, but we will keep working on it in the coming days.”
After detailed analyses of each encampment identified by the citizens’ group, Daugaard summed up the situation with a bulleted list of takeaways:
“Due to the high volume of sweeps elsewhere this week, the city has claimed all shelter resources. I [James] have placed referrals for three individuals and one couple from these areas with no response. This issue is not going to be resolved until at least next week.
“There is significant open use of fentanyl by almost all clients contacted [Lisa D note: this means shelter and housing offers that cannot accommodate this will not be effective strategies]
“Of those living in tent structures on 3rd, the majority are already working with REACH/LEAD, but we lack shelter placements options at present.”
While many people on the email chain thanked her for her honest response, Burns was not satisfied. After an email from Nitze looping in Marc Dones, the CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, and another from Bagshaw asking Dones what they could do to increase shelter availability for the area, Burns reiterated his complaint:
“I just used the light rail station at 3rd & James in Pioneer Square around noon today and felt very unsafe while existing [sic] the station. Please watch a short YouTube video below from my walkthrough which shows the security risk … We need to find these people places to stay and services to receive to help them recover. Can we also add security for the entrances and exits of our metro stations to enable our citizens to use light rail in safety?”
Burns did not respond to a request for comment on whether or not he had any direct interactions with the people filmed, and the YouTube video mentioned in his email no longer exists.
Daugaard responded again, writing:
“I do want to flag that people of all economic stations and social conditions are using meth and fentanyl in record numbers across the country, in communities with all ideological and demographic characteristics. It’s not a surprise that this behavior exists among people who lack a private place to use their drugs.”
At that point, Nitze looped in Shannon Braddock, chief of staff for King County Executive Dow Constantine. Somewhere after that, the whole long email chain ended up in Washington’s inbox, who forwarded Nitze’s last message, copying the body of Burns’ message, including the YouTube link, into her own email. This email was sent to a number of city staffers, including Chief Adrian Diaz of the Seattle Police Department.
Below the copied text, she tagged Diaz and Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell, asking, “What can we do here?” Below that, she tagged city staffers asking, “Where is this location on our list or is it on our list at all?”
Housen noted that, even when no shelter is available, encampments like the one on 3rd and James can be swept:
“While under the city’s existing procedural rules (FAS 17-01) there is no requirement for offers of shelter when an encampment is creating an obstruction, to support a harm reduction approach we are asking our outreach partners to work in collaboration with the Unified Care Team to engage with people currently living unsheltered in places that are obstructing safe use of sidewalks or other transportation rights-of-way, to connect them to shelter resources or support safe relocation.”
Daugaard said, in a Dec. 7 email, that she was not sure what happened to the encampments after her initial inquiries.
“I was just trying to clarify what we had not done, lest there be false assurance that somehow we had made placements for these folks,” she wrote. “Recalling that period of time, I can say we were not able to offer placements because there was no plan for continuation of JustCARE, our funding was to end in June, and per direction from King County, we were to wind down and stop making new placements. I can’t speak to what did happen.”
According to Housen, at least one was removed. Housen confirmed that the HOPE team had identified six people living at the Fourth Avenue and Yesler Way site, offering eight total shelter referrals and four on the day of its removal. Five unhoused individuals were referred to enhanced shelter and three to tiny homes. The city also cleared an encampment on 3rd Avenue between James Street and Cherry Street, albeit on Apr. 4, weeks earlier than the complaints that led to Daugaard’s email. Housen said the city’s records did not show a subsequent sweep closer to when Washington forwarded the email chain to ask if the site was “on our list.”
While the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Martin v. Boise prohibits cities from removing people sleeping outside unless there is available shelter, what constitutes available shelter is still hotly debated. Many cities interpret it to mean “any available shelter bed.” Locally, Kitcheon v. the City of Seattle, a case brought by local coffee shop Squirrel Chops and the ACLU of Washington arguing that the city does not provide adequate shelter to individuals caught up in sweeps, is still ongoing.
However, regardless of the legality of these removals, going ahead with them with foreknowledge of a lack of suitable shelter for the individuals to be removed is not necessarily new.
In a Jan. 10 email about the planned removal of a “200+” person encampment in Woodland Park, obtained by Real Change reporter Guy Oron, Washington writes to city staff, “In order to accomplish the goal of bringing 400+ folks inside last year, we have exhausted most current shelter resources. On average we have between 8-10 open shelter beds per week. This means we will need a different strategy for Woodland park.”
More recently, at a press conference announcing the mayor’s budget ask for his Unified Care Team, which handles encampment removals, Washington again acknowledged a lack of shelter, offering a clearer glimpse of what that strategy might be. A slide from her presentation, titled “Observations,” concluded that “we need to incorporate a set of solutions beyond removal of sites.”
Even more recently, the city conducted at least two removals of RV clusters or encampments between Dec. 11 and 16.
Ashley Archibald contributed reporting to this article.
Read more of the Dec. 21-27, 2022 issue.