As the people of Seattle pulled out their extra coats and blankets on Thursday, Jan. 11, in preparation for one of the coldest weekends of the year, the city of Seattle decided to destroy the shelters of nearly 20 people living outside at an encampment in Greenwood, making them far more vulnerable to the cold snap that followed. At that point, King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) had already announced a Tier 3 Activation from its cold weather protocol on Tuesday, Jan. 9 — the same day the city posted a 48-hour sweep notice at the Greenwood encampment.
The conditions in which this sweep occurred were nightmarish. Dozens of city workers destroyed the Greenwood encampment that had been providing warmth, shelter and community for at least 20 people. It began snowing as parking enforcement towed an RV that had been housing five teenagers and young adults, leaving them with nowhere else to go. Those young people didn’t leave the sweep on a path toward a warm place indoors. They were not provided with meaningful options for shelter or even offered material support for their immediate survival by the city that had just taken their only home. Instead, it was community members who showed up to support them, providing sleeping bags and tents and helping them save and move what belongings they were able to hold on to.
Encampment sweeps are always cruel and a massive waste of time and resources — all they do is shuffle people from place to place, disrupting any semblance of community they have built with their neighbors and service providers. The sweep on Jan. 11 took this cruelty and destruction to a new level.
An elderly man, desperate for shelter that would be more than a mat on the floor, was told by outreach workers they could maybe offer him a spot in a tiny house in a few months. However, he would have to call them every day to find out if they had one for him. They offered him nothing beyond the insufficient emergency shelters that had not opened for the day yet. In the meantime, the shelter he had built for himself was torn down.
In another instance, a mother and her toddler who were fleeing domestic violence went to the Greenwood site the night before the sweep to try to access services the next morning. This is all too common, as services are tied to the sweeps occurring in Seattle. However, this strategy often results in poor outcomes for the people seeking resources, and this case was no different. The mother and toddler were told they should “maybe call Mary’s Place” and that the outreach team couldn’t do anything for them.
Emergency cold weather shelters are an insufficient resource, providing only temporary relief from the cold for the smallest fraction of Seattle’s homeless population. There simply is not enough space inside for everyone living unsheltered.
Additionally, barriers to access still exist for many, including mixed-gender couples who don’t want to be split up, people with pets and those with limited capacity to store their personal property elsewhere while staying at a shelter. Many of these emergency shelters open several hours past sunset, when the temperatures are hitting their lowest, and they close in the morning when the sun is rising and the freezing temperatures are persisting.
When advocates say sweeps kill, we mean it quite literally. In 2023, at least 415 people were recorded as having died while living unhoused. The loss of community and resources, coupled with already unbearable living conditions while facing the elements, results in death by hypothermia, exacerbated illness and increased risk of overdose. Every year, our city sees a larger number of people dying while living outside than the year before, and a disproportionate number of those deaths occur during the winter.
Our tax dollars should go toward preventing those deaths and providing meaningful services to people, not destroying their only shelter while snow falls. Seattle has no protections for our most vulnerable neighbors in extreme weather events or during winter months. This is a failure of our city and of the people who live in it. Without shelter, people die.
We cannot continue to respond with destruction. We cannot continue to enact such cruelty with taxpayer dollars. We need this city to do everything it can to provide desperately needed services that will help people survive. We need adequate shelter, permanent affordable housing, hygiene stations, harm reduction services and true services that can support people living outside, unsheltered. This most recent sweep in Greenwood, and the upcoming sweeps that will occur in cold, rainy, wet conditions this winter, demonstrate the clear need for the city of Seattle to pass a ban on sweeps during the winter and during severe weather events.
The only people who “benefit” from sweeps are those who do not want to bear witness to the reality experienced by our unhoused neighbors. “Reducing visible homelessness,” as Mayor Harrell often refers to it, is a grotesquely expensive and dehumanizing cosmetic fix for a problem rooted in decades of failed policy. Throwing millions of dollars into sweeps year after year has done nothing to change the material conditions in which people live. It has done nothing to change the conditions that led to the 2005 resolution endorsing the “Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness,” or the 2015 state of emergency regarding homelessness.
Sweeps are a failure to address root issues within a city, and chronic sweeps lead to destabilization of any growth individuals have made toward exiting homelessness. Sweeps are traumatic events people living outside experience continuously, and they should not be the main path to shelter, housing or support from service providers. Sweeps disrupt care plans between clients and service providers and prevent progress in accessing state benefits, services, housing, health care and harm reduction.
How can a case manager build rapport and have any follow-up for services when their client is constantly being shifted from block to block, neighborhood to neighborhood? The same city boasting about contracts and relationships with service providers prevents them from being able to do their jobs. You can’t provide service to a person you can’t find because they were swept again.
Winter has come, and the conditions outside will only continue to worsen. King County and the city of Seattle don’t have any policies protecting people who are living outside during these conditions from sweeps. There will always be people who can’t access emergency shelters when they open. There are not enough beds (or mats on the floor) for everyone. The county doesn’t even provide transportation to shelters, meaning many people have to abandon anything they can’t carry in order to get there, and public transportation is not free. Fare enforcement prevents people with little or no income from getting out of the cold for even a bus ride, let alone to get to a warming center or shelter.
On Jan. 17, WHEEL Women in Black stood for another 32 people during their monthly vigil they hold for people who died unhoused in King County. Immediately after the vigil, the group learned that three homeless people had died of hypothermia since the Greenwood sweep. They will stand vigil again, the day this op-ed is published, on Jan. 24.
The unhoused people who live in your neighborhood need support to survive. They need blankets, gloves, hats, propane, fire extinguishers, naloxone and more to protect them from the elements when accessing emergency shelters is not an option. They need your support in passing legislation that prevents sweeps from occurring during these severe weather periods and winter months. This legislation needs to support the development of services that are equitable and accessible and set people up for long-term housing rather than short-term solutions that prolong the cycle of homelessness and perpetuate a system designed to fail.
The only way to effect change in this city is to do something. Elected officials only care when their constituents speak up en masse. You can make your voice heard right now by going to
servicesnotsweepscoalition.org and signing on to our Action Network letter, which will automatically email everyone on the City Council, demanding that they ban sweeps in the winter and during extreme weather events.
If you are interested in volunteering with Services Not Sweeps, you can email us at [email protected] or by connecting with us
@Servicesnotsweepscoalition on Instagram.
Read more of the Jan. 24-30, 2024 issue.