Seattle conducted more than 900 sweeps in 2022 — a rate of more than two-and-a-half per day — compounding the fear and danger of sleeping unsheltered for homeless neighbors across Seattle. Sweeps fail to address the root causes of homelessness and instead push vulnerable people into more precarious situations, disconnecting them from community and stability. Nationwide, homeless and housing advocates condemn sweeps as deadly and ineffectual, yet the city of Seattle continues its relentless campaign.
Enough is enough.
The human risk of this strategy has become impossible to ignore. Our unhoused neighbors are pushed from one street to the next, losing belongings and loved ones, while the city makes clear its commitment to investing in this dangerous practice. Over the last month, we have seen key reporting uncover the consequences of this policy and a devastating study that digs into the true human cost of continuing on this trajectory.
For anyone who has experienced a sweep, the findings of the authors Joshua A. Barocas, MD; Samantha K. Nall, MPH; Sarah Axelrath, MD; et al. will not come as a surprise. The researchers used models to explore the impact of sweeps and forced displacement policies across 23 cities in the United States and found “no feasible scenario, in any city, where continual involuntary displacement improves health outcomes.”
The piece, published in Journal of the American Medical Association, demonstrates the long-term effects of sweeps and forced displacement policies, specifically for people who inject drugs. According to this research, sweeps lead to increased overdose, death and hospitalization at an alarming rate within that population. Sweeps could contribute to one quarter of deaths in the homeless population that injects drugs over the next 10 years, according to the model.
And Seattle keeps doubling down on deadly sweeps. This month, reports from Real Change and PubliCola revealed details about the practice of sweeps that raise deep concerns about the way these violent acts are carried out. Real Change staff reporter Guy Oron used records requested from the city in a recent article that showed its lack of intentionality in using this violent tactic.
Of the 943 sweeps conducted last year, 771 were “no-notice” sweeps, classified as “obstructions” by the city. When sweeps include notices — often only between two to four days — there is not enough time or resources to connect people to housing options. The “obstruction” sweeps remove even the courtesy of a warning for individuals who are often living day by day to meet their needs. A dump truck, tow truck or armed police officer will simply appear without warning, taking the tent or vehicle from someone who is often left with nothing.
Sweeps, while causing harm and failing to resolve homelessness, have a very real financial cost to the city. In recent reporting from Erica C. Barnett in PubliCola, we see that this financial cost to taxpayers may benefit city employees. A city employee’s company, Fresh Family, was found to have received nearly half a million dollars in 2022 for its work cleaning up at sweeps. Fresh Family charges the city $110 per hour, per employee. The ethical questions that are raised by this reporting should cause alarm and distrust for Seattleites who have seen only harm and no benefit from this practice. Where any industry springs into being (and sweeps have indeed become an industry), we must ask who stands to benefit. In the case of sweeps, expensive city contracts and significant police overtime seem to outweigh the need for any real solutions to unsheltered homelessness.
For many people sleeping unsheltered, the risk to their lives and wellbeing has been exacerbated by sweeps. For some, setting up a tent or vehicle in community with others can offer a sense of safety, stability and support. Also, we don’t have anywhere for people to go. Beside the importance of building up encampments for safety and support, it’s just illogical, unreasonable and inhumane to force people to move and to ban camping outside when they are waiting for a place to be safe.
Housed and unhoused people alike have seen the increase of sweeps and recognize the failure of this strategy. It is time to hold our electeds and decision makers accountable for the toll this policy decision has made on our communities. We cannot turn our backs to the violence and terror any longer. We must stop the sweeps.
Stop the Sweeps is a group that believes in a world without state-sanctioned violence and mobilizes to challenge state violence directed at our unhoused neighbors during sweeps.
Read more of the May 3-9, 2023 issue.