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Cleaning up Seattle’s homelessness crisis in Northgate

The crisis was front and center during a sweep at a homeless camp in Seattle this week.

Caution tape was wrapped around the site along I-5 near Northgate Mall. City trucks were pulled up in front of 12 tents. There were social workers, Seattle police advocates, and the media. It was like everyone showed up for an intervention, except the person who needs help was already in the wind.

“A lot of the people you are seeing right now are either part of the Navigation Team, members of the media, and activists,” said Will Lemke with the City of Seattle’s Navigation Team.

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The team contacts the city’s homeless population, offering services and other aid, and also organizes cleanups of camps when needed. In this case, campers are told to leave an area that will be cleaned.

Despite all the spending on the homelessness crisis in Seattle and neighboring communities, the number of homeless people who have died in King County has gone up for the fourth year in a row. A total of 191 homeless people died last year — the most deadly year on record. The year before, the number was 169.

Cleaning up the homelessness crisis

In their wake, Northgate campers left abandoned tents, piles and piles of garbage, shopping carts, and human waste. City workers to hauled it all out. With more than 400 unsanctioned camps, the city is doing what many have asked — get out there and clean it up, over and over again.

“One of the reasons why we are cleaning up this site is because it’s a public health risk having waste and food out here, with rodents and whatnot,” Lemke said. “Businesses on the other side here have been contacting the media, reporting they have had public safety issues.”

The Navigation Team didn’t just orchestrate the removal of waste. Heavy equipment was brought in to take away large clumps of debris and clean up the top soil of the site.

“This is a standard operation for the Navigation Team,” Lemke said.

Shelter and services

The campers who occupied the site were offered services and space at a local shelter. From among the 12 tents there, only one person accepted the offer.

“We’re in the middle of a crisis here,” Lemke said. “A part of that crisis is that a lot of these individuals are in their own personal crisis. The reason why they don’t take our shelter could be a myriad of reasons. We try to remove as many of those obstacles as possible, and make those offers attractive. But a lot of these individuals come from a lot of different backgrounds and have a lot of different reasons why they don’t want to go inside.”

“It’s a very complicated issue,” he said. “But what the city can do is ensure we maintain public safety and pubic health by removing these larger encampments that pose those concerns. This is one of those (camps).”

Northgate neighbors

For many neighbors in the Northgate area, homeless camp sweeps like this one is a wedge issue. Some would rather truck in bathrooms and trash cans to the camp instead of clearing them out. But others see that stance as enabling the crisis.

“What could be happening is we could be bringing survival services to where they are,” said Ed Mast, a local. “The city could be spending money to bring a dumpster here and some porta potties. If we wanted people to survive we would bring them the services they need, while we are adjusting or social priorities to bring shelter and services to everybody.”

Another neighbor who only gave his first name, Lawton, counters this perspective. He says Seattle suffers from having too much compassion, to the point it that the homelessness problem grows, and doesn’t get solved.

“Sometime in the past, Seattle made this idea around homelessness that is now blown up to ‘why would I be incentivized to work if I know I will get everything I need at the drop of a dime,'” he said.

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