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Homeless camp sweeps are up: Is Seattle shuffling them out of sight?

Seattle's Navigation Teams cleans up a homeless encampment in Northgate in January 2019. (Carolyn Ossorio, KIRO Radio)

Without any announcements or fanfare, the city of Seattle has seemingly ramped up sweeps of homeless encampments this year, more than during the same time last year.

Not that you’d know any of this was happening since the city hasn’t publicized it.

“(Mayor) Durkan doesn’t want to wake a sleeping beast which might get upset with the fact that people are being asked to move,” said KIRO Radio’s Tom Tangney.

According to The Seattle Times, 75 percent more encampments were removed in the first four months of 2019 (93 sweeps) than the same time last year, at 11. The rise in sweeps appears to be partly due to a change of strategy, in which the city is responding to the smaller encampments faster and taking a long-term approach to bigger ones.

Full Seattle homeless count report shows who is on the street and why

As the Time notes, removals of the larger camps must involve 72-hour notice and offers of shelter, which city rules do not require for for small encampment cleanups.

“If you respond to the little ones faster that actually might settle down the the citizenry that’s so outraged because they seem to be popping up everywhere,” Tom said. “And then they work on the bigger ones for a longer-term solution, so that’s that’s the difference and focus.”

For co-host John Curley, the cleanups aren’t necessarily a sign of progress, but rather a shuffling that’s put the issue out of view.

“You tell the two people that are living in a little light setup tent area in some spot they found, ‘Hey you can’t stay here.’ So they get up and they leave and where do they go? Well they end up going down the street to a bigger kind of encampment with a bunch of other people,” Curley said. “What they’re doing is they’re trying to push them out of view. So they’re sending them back behind railroad tracks, back behind buildings, back away from the general view.”

Timeline: Understanding Seattle’s homeless issues

The latest homeless count for Seattle/King County showed that there are 11,199 people experiencing homelessness countywide. Approximately 5,971 people were sheltered (which covers emergency shelters, safe havens and transitional housing), and 5,228 people unsheltered (living in vehicles, tents, or encampments). Specifically, 2,147 individuals were living in vehicles and 1,276 persons were living in tents/unsanctioned encampments.

“We don’t see them but they still continue to live there that way. City Hall doesn’t get the complaints that say, ‘Hey, there’s a homeless tent in my neighborhood,” John added.

Listen to the Tom and Curley Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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