New records obtained by Real Change indicate that the city of Seattle oversaw a massive rise in sweeps of unhoused people living in tents and vehicles in 2022. According to the log, the city conducted 943 sweeps, averaging more than two-and-a-half per day.
The vast majority of these removals — 771 — were classified as “obstruction” sweeps, meaning that staff were not required to provide any notice to camp residents before initiating the sweep. In 158 sweeps, residents received prior notice, ranging from between one day and four days ahead of the sweep. Fourteen of the sweeps did not have a known classification or were labeled as question marks, suggesting potential clerical errors in the city’s logging methods.
Previously obtained public records showed that Seattle conducted 53 sweeps with prior notice in 2021, indicating a sharp increase in the number of sweeps conducted with notice as the city relaxed its pandemic quasi-moratorium on sweeps. It is not known how many no-notice obstruction sweeps the city undertook during that time period.
Coinciding with this rise is the inauguration of Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, who pledged during his campaign that addressing encampments would be a top priority for his new administration. In an August 2022 press conference, Harrell announced that the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation had cleared a number of parks and green spaces that had been impacted by people taking shelter there.
The increase in sweep numbers may also indicate that many of the bigger encampments, which had experienced relative stability during the pandemic, had now been displaced, with the final big encampment in Woodland Park cleared in May 2022. Most of the 2022 sweeps were small in nature, involving only a handful of tents, vehicles or sleeping bags.
For years, community advocates have decried the city’s sweeps policies as violent, harmful and counterproductive. At the reopening of the Ballard Commons park on March 11, dozens of activists interrupted the celebration to protest the city’s sweeps policies, delaying the event by about an hour. The park was closed in December 2021 after a sweep in which city officials cleared dozens of tents and displaced about 100 residents.
According to the 2022 sweeps spreadsheet, the city oversaw 18 sweeps at the Ballard Commons and 53 sweeps near the Ballard Library across the street from the park. The most commonly swept location in 2022 was Occidental Park in Pioneer Square, with 66 recorded sweeps.
The 2022 figures were only surpassed in recent years by similarly high numbers of sweeps in 2019, when Seattle oversaw 1,192 total sweeps. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of sweeps remained stable, hovering around 500 per year. In 2020, the city swept 392 tents and vehicles, the vast majority of which occurred before the city paused almost all sweeps on March 17, 2020, due to the COVID-19 emergency.
In light of the Black Lives Matter protests during the spring and summer of that year, the city council voted in August 2020 to defund Seattle’s Navigation Team, which was responsible for carrying out sweeps and giving out referrals to shelter for people living in encampments.
Since the council disbanded the Navigation Team, the city has been coordinating management of sweeps between departments such as the Mayor’s Office, Parks and Recreation and Transportation. After Harrell took office, he created a new process, forming the Unified Care Team to handle a variety of tasks including sweeps, referrals to shelter and garbage cleanup. According to Harrell’s “One Seattle” homelessness dashboard, the city spent $9.8 million on encampment and vehicle sweeps last year. In 2023, the city dramatically increased funding for the team, allocating $29.1 million to “Encampment Resolution, Cleaning & Hygiene.”
The increase in sweeps also coincided with a record 310 unhoused people who died in King County in 2022.
Read more of the Mar. 29-April 4, 2023 issue.