Yesterday, the Services Not Sweeps Coalition (SNSC) held a rally outside of Seattle City Hall, calling on our elected officials to support a winter and extreme weather sweeps ban. The rally, held directly before Councilmember Andrew Lewis’ Public Assets and Homelessness committee meeting, was the most exciting thing that happened all day.
In contrast to the rally, Lewis’ committee meeting was chocked full of dull, boring data. Statistics. Numbers. Powerpoint slides. All of that stuff that normal people can’t and shouldn’t be bothered to care about. But journalists are not normal, so this one went and sat through nearly the entire thing.
After public comment ended, the SNSC folks in the room disappeared, leaving only a crowd of middle-aged Seattle Aquarium supporters. Once they got what they wanted – the committee voted to recommend a measure that would help bail out the Aquarium’s flashy new Ocean Pavilion project, which is a little bit short on cash but totally good for it, man – they too disappeared, as did the peanut gallery of journalists in the back row.
Did no one want to stick around for an update on sweeps? Or was everyone just watching on the Seattle Channel, like a normal person?
Either way, I got what I came for, in the form of an update on the work of the mayor’s Unified Care Team (UCT) from Human Services Department (HSD) strategic advisor Chris Klaeysen. Last year, those intrepid care delivery professionals conducted 943 encampment removals and RV remediations.
While Klaeysen didn’t have numbers on how many removals or RV remediations they’d done in Q2 of 2023, the time period his presentation focused on, he did share that they made 1352 offers of shelter during that time. Comparing that to total sweeps is apples to oranges but, no matter how you slice it, they’ve managed to stay busy!
Of those offers, a pretty dismal 554 — or 41 percent — were accepted, which Klaesyen said did include some duplicate offers (as did total offers made). Makes sense, as I have personally witnessed the same people being swept multiple times, and an accepted offer is not the same as someone actually going into shelter. They could accept and end up camped three blocks away the next day, getting and accepting a second offer of shelter there.
That said, HSD does keep numbers on how many people actually check into a shelter after an offer. That number is… not great: 206 out of 1352, or 15 percent. The biggest takeaway from Klaesyen’s presentation was that, while we might offer shelter to everyone we sweep, we are still effectively displacing 85 percent of them. That seems bad!
What did the councilmembers think about all of this? Well, Lisa Herbold was mostly concerned about why so few offers of shelter had been made in the UCT’s southwest region, and when the UCT would get around to standing up its southwest regional team. Only the northwest region is operating as of right now, with the other four falling to the general staff, per Klaeysen. Anyway, it was unclear if Herbold made the connection that offers of shelter only occur during sweeps, because it sure sounded like she was asking for more sweeps in her district. Totally understandable if she was running for reelection, but confusing as a lame duck.
She was also annoyed at a “tech glitch” where certain encampments were marked as resolved when they hadn’t actually been resolved. I feel compelled to point out, again from personal experience, that it is also entirely possible they were swept and simply reappeared. Because, as everyone but especially elected officials should know by now, there is nowhere for homeless people to go.
Okay, who else chimed in? Lewis, of course, as the chair. Given that we were the only two people actually in council chambers besides the clerk for most of this, I am choosing to believe he asked all of the burning questions I couldn’t ask as a little bit of fan service. Even if you’re playing for an audience of one, you gotta hit the high notes, right?
Flexing his policy wonkery, he asked a very astute question as to whether there is any overlap in the reasons given for the refusal of shelter offers, which HSD also tracks. Basically, do we accept multiple reasons from the same person, or is there only one reason recorded per person? Klaeysen confirmed that it’s one reason per person, which had Lewis wondering if some of the people who declined shelter because they wanted a placement alongside a partner, family member or friend could just as easily have been listed as having declined because they “want a tiny home.”
It’s a little in the weeds, to be sure, but his point was that instead of 16 percent of refusals being for want of a tiny home, if we understood that tiny homes can often accommodate families or people with partners, we could be looking at about 25 percent of all service refusals being solved by standing up more tiny homes.
Or, as Lewis nerdily put it, “That continues to be for me one of the biggest policy interventions that could make a significant statistical difference in our efforts.”
It’s a good thing he won’t have to make any fiery stump speeches to beat Bob Kettle!
Klaeysen offered another tidbit about the UCT’s work on encampments, noting that, because “we know that we do not have enough places for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness to go,” the city had begun including certain entrenched encampments in trash collection routes.
This is a great time to remind all the Redditors hate-reading this article that, because we rely so much on regressive taxation in Washington, homeless people actually pay more than their fair share in taxes and deserve city services like everyone else.
After that, Lewis wanted to know what caused the overall increase in accepted offers, which went up by 21 percent over the same period last year. Among other things, Klaeysen noted that “longer lead times” had something to do with it.
“Allowing more time for relationship development and engagement with folks who are unsheltered to make meaningful referrals” was a big help, he concluded. To which we say, “No doy.” The only way to truly resolve an encampment is to get its residents into better situations, which takes time. There is no shortcut! You can’t just push everything under the bed and say you cleaned your room!
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said, “We also know that it is about really not moving people — we should not be moving people — until that appropriate bed and shelter becomes available… We know that offering appropriate shelter is critical to getting people inside.”
A minor takeaway here is that those headsets with the fuzzy black earpieces that look like relics from a 1980s call center still exist and that, as evidenced by Klaeysen’s zoom setup, people still use them. Also that we need to completely overhaul what we consider successful outreach and how we collect data on that, as thinking in terms of offers of shelter doesn’t give us even the foggiest idea of whether homeless people are actually being served by it. Even though we do track check-ins, we definitely do not track where people go from there. Again, no numbers, but I’d be willing to wager that currently a lot more go back to the street than into permanent housing.
That said, the big takeaway is that we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that our current approach to unsheltered homelessness — sweeps — is failing to shelter people. And, as evidenced by the 9,348 encampment-related customer service requests made to the city in Q2 2023, it’s also failing to accomplish its most cynical policy goal, which is to prevent housed people from having to see homelessness.
The question then becomes, if his own data shows that sweeps aren’t working, why is Mayor Bruce Harrell so committed to them? While I would never accuse him of cynically using homeless people as a political football, all while hopping behind podium after podium to talk about how much he cares about their plight and how compassionate his administration is, I have to admit I’m stumped.
Read more of the Aug. 9-15, 2023 issue.