On June 22, the city’s Unified Care Team — a cross-departmental collection of cops, parks workers, members of the HOPE team and other staffers that perform sweeps — descended on a strip of concrete behind the Shell station on Northwest 40th Street and Leary Way Northwest in Frelard (aka the liminal space between Fremont and Ballard). They were there to conduct business as usual — another sweep.
The small encampment, consisting of seven tents and as many people, had been given the proper 72-hour notice, as required by the city’s Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules that govern sweeps. Mutual aid volunteers on site griped that the HOPE team hadn’t showed up until 15 minutes after the cleanup crew and cops had finished clearing the site at the last sweep they had attended. However, this time a worker from the HOPE team was on site and discussing potential alternative housing arrangements with the encampment’s residents, none of whom had opted to move in advance.
While he had no tiny homes to offer, mutual aid volunteers reported that a few campers were offered placements in some of the Compass Housing Alliance’s shelters, including Jan & Peter’s Place, for women, and Otto’s Place, for men. Angie and Marco, a couple, weren’t interested in splitting up. They were also uninterested in being separated from their possessions.
Angel, a single woman, was similarly opposed to giving up her gear just to get inside. Would she accept shelter if she was guaranteed that her stuff was safe?
“Yes, because this is all I have. It’s my home,” she said, gesturing around her at her hastily packed personal belongings, now sitting on a patch of sidewalk 15 feet away from her former tent site.
“They should offer storage a few days before sweeps,” she suggested.
Also, somewhere in the neighborhood would be nice. She’s been in and around the Ballard area for two years now and didn’t relish the idea of relocating to downtown or further south. Jan & Peter’s place is on Rainier Avenue South near the I-90 onramp, while Otto’s Place is in Pioneer Square along Alaskan Way.
While this sweep was otherwise unremarkable in its execution, there was one thing that stood out: four out of the seven campers swept had been swept less than a week before, on June 16. Until then, Angie, Marco, Angel and a neighbor of theirs named Lumpy had all been camped a couple blocks over, near a shipyard on the water.
The city had slightly different numbers, but confirmed that some of the encampment’s residents had been swept before.
“All were offered shelter, though all six individuals declined those shelter offers. City outreach staff reported that they had previously worked with two of the individuals and that previous offers of shelter had been made to these individuals and declined,” said Lori Baxter, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office.
Besides being swept twice in one week, Angel had been caught up in three other sweeps prior to that, for a total of five. She had vague plans to relocate somewhere up by the famous Fremont troll, but was already wary of the spot for its high visibility and proximity to single-family homes. Why the city didn’t buy or lease enough vacant properties to house all the people experiencing homelessness on its streets, she couldn’t understand.
According to a University of Washington report, there were 7,110 vacant one- and two-bedroom apartment units in Seattle as of fall 2022. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s 2022 Point-in-Time count put the number of people experiencing homelessness countywide at 13,368.
“It doesn’t make any damn sense,” she said. What homeless people want, she said, was anything they could actually depend on, rather than going into a shelter and coming out three days later with nothing.
“It’s a tough life out here,” she said. “We don’t want to just leave [if] it comes back and bites us.”
Read more of the June 28-July 4, 2023 issue.