A May 17 sweep of Northgate’s Hubbard Homestead park, where about 30 people had been living full-time in tents, according to an encampment resident named Sarah, proceeded in pretty much the same way all sweeps do.
Eight or nine cops stood in a cluster around their car, chatting. Mutual aid workers doggedly helped encampment residents pack, loading belongings into personal vehicles to help people get to wherever they were going next. Cleanup crews from the Parks and Recreation department dumped whatever was left into several trash trailers. Former KOMO reporter Jonathan Choe livestreamed, earning the usual jeers from the mutual aid crew. Outreach workers from REACH and the city’s HOPE team circulated between tent sites, checking in with residents.
However, what was unusual about this sweep was that, in contrast with the mayor’s claims that encampment residents are always offered some shelter, many reported receiving no offer of shelter whatsoever.
In fact, multiple women residing in the encampment reported being told that gender-appropriate shelter availability was nonexistent that day.
“As of right now, there’s no female beds at any shelter anywhere,” said Jasmine, a resident, after speaking with a member of the city’s HOPE team. There weren’t any couples shelters or tiny home placements either, she added, noting that she’d prefer not to separate from her boyfriend.
The city’s own shelter tracker tool listed only 11 beds available at Otto’s Place, the Pioneer Square men’s shelter run by Compass Housing.
Residents of the Hubbard Homestead encampment seemed eager to accept anything. In fact, at least three individuals interviewed during the sweep — Casper, Josh and Dylan — had already opted for a bed in Otto’s Place. Sarah and her partner Robert were fortunate enough to get the only available tiny home placement, which was at Camp Second Chance in White Center. While tiny houses were in short supply that day, independent homelessness advocate Bruce Drager said that the city had made three placements in the days prior to the sweep.
Jamie Housen, the mayor’s director of communications, wrote in an emailed response to questions that the city’s Unified Care Team (UCT) had been working alongside various outreach agencies at the encampment since April 28 and had identified 24 residents for inclusion on a “by-name” list. The city made 45 total offers of shelter, he said, adding that some residents arrived after a notice of removal was posted. Twenty-two residents accepted shelter.
Drager and Sarah, the encampment resident, said that, prior to the removal notice, there had been between 50 and 60 individuals living at least part-time in the encampment and around 30 living there full-time. Drager said that he’d seen four or five tents pop up since the posting.
While their numbers are slightly higher than the city’s, 45 offers of shelter would seem to cover everybody. However, many people present on the day of the sweep said they hadn’t been offered anything.
Candy, who didn’t want to go to a shelter — “Been there, done that” — was planning to spend one more night on the street before going to view a vacant tiny home that outreach workers had identified for her. She wasn’t sure it would be a good fit but was willing to give it a try, she said.
A different Josh than from the earlier, now-sheltered trio did not receive the same offer as his shaggy-haired counterpart. He complained that the sweep had caused him to miss an appointment related to getting disability benefits.
Joshua — not to be confused with the two Joshes — was iffy on shelter anyway, but said, “When I asked where [I could go], they gave me a booklet and it was basically, ‘Look it up on your own.’” He’s been incarcerated most of his life, he said, and became homeless after being released from prison in 2020, at the height of the pandemic.
“It’s disheartening,” Joshua said of the sweep, because he is ready to get off the street. “I need help. I need somebody … who is like, ‘Are you ready to do this now?’”
A woman with red hair who did not give her name said she hadn’t received any offer, as did a similarly anonymous man packing his things on the park’s west side, away from the main group of tents.
Housen said the city strives to offer shelter to everyone at a site, regardless of when they arrived, but that sometimes there simply aren’t enough resources.
“City policy is to guarantee offers of shelter to individuals on the site’s by-name list at the time of posting. We continue to make offers, as shelter spaces are available, to folks who show up to a site during a posting period or on the day of removal,” he wrote.
He said that, in the 48 hours after the removal notice was posted, there were six beds in gender-appropriate shelter for women available and 11 couples units in tiny home villages, and that the “UCT connected with the female identifying folks on site on Wednesday at Hubbard Homestead Park and offered to follow up with them to ensure they have connections to services.”
While the lack of available shelter was disappointing to the displaced residents of Hubbard Homestead, advocates in attendance also wanted to know: Was it legal?
In 2018, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found in a case called Martin v. Boise that it was a violation of the plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment rights to issue them citations for sleeping rough when “no shelter had an available overnight space.” Effectively, Martin v. Boise made it illegal to criminalize homelessness without offering people somewhere else to go.
Or so the advocacy community hoped.
La Rond Baker — the ACLU of Washington’s legal director and the person overseeing the organization’s ongoing lawsuit against the city of Seattle’s sweeps policy — cautioned that Martin v. Boise was not the magic bullet to end sweeps that many homelessness advocates take it for.
“Martin v. Boise was about cruel and unusual punishment, and it has to do with actually criminally penalizing people for sleeping outside. … There are other cases sort of extending it into the civil world, where it doesn’t just require criminal punishment [to occur] — there could be just the sweep or the threat. The landscape is just really uncertain in terms of the full breadth of what Martin v. Boise is and how it will be applied moving forward,” she said.
While a person who refused to move and resisted city workers’ attempts to remove their home would most certainly be arrested — the cops aren’t only there to drink coffee — the argument that they were arrested for being unhoused might not be completely clear. The city could argue, for example, that they were arrested for being violent, if indeed they were. Camping is against Parks and Recreation’s rules, so an encampment could be issued a trespass notice simply for having pitched a tent, allowing police to arrest them for trespassing. While the trespass would very obviously be related to their housing status, whether that would count as criminalizing them for sleeping outside isn’t something Martin v. Boise makes clear.
Baker emphasized that the decision’s influence was by no means strictly limited to situations where someone was arrested or fined simply for pitching a tent, but that defining its application in the context of sweeps was still a work in progress.
“A lot of people are pushing for it to be broader and to be interpreted in [a] broader context,” she said. “And I think some are winning, but it’s just still very uncertain.”
In Seattle, the ACLU of Washington is focusing less on access to shelter, she said, and more on arguing that the loss of possessions that often occurs during sweeps constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. That case was set for trial on June 26 but got pushed back to September.
At Hubbard Homestead, the encampment’s former residents were trying to figure out what to do right now.
As the sweep wound down, a group of five of them — Ray, Pace, Christina, AJ and Jasmine — huddled around a packed shopping cart in the shade of a nearby Target. They weren’t sure where they’d go, but they’d heard that residents of encampments under the purview of the state’s Right of Way Initiative, which moves people off state Department of Transportation property in certain circumstances, were having better luck getting housed.
“No one here got housing because it’s city property,” said Ray.
Christina concurred, claiming, “You have to be by a bridge or freeway or onramp to get housing.”
Joey, a resident who also didn’t receive an offer of shelter, was out of ideas.
“I’ve been in these sweeps before; been pushed around from park to park,” he said.
He wasn’t sure if the Hubbard Homestead sweep was his sixth or seventh, but, either way, he said, “[I got] pushed somewhere else today, I guess.”
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Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the May 24-30, 2023 issue.