Opinion: Seattle homeless camp sweeps are built to fail

May 28, 2020, 12:07 PM | Updated: 12:20 pm

Homeless camp sweeps...

A homeless encampment in Ballard. (Photo: Rob Harwood)

(Photo: Rob Harwood)

Seattle lawmakers and officials continue to debate over how to handle sweeps of homeless encampments during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. But even while they try to figure out the best way to manage these camps right now, it’s the city’s long term strategy that presents the real problems.

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After representatives from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office made it clear in a Wednesday committee meeting that she would not support a proposed bill limiting sweeps during the ongoing pandemic, its fate remains in limbo. That was punctuated by a five-and-a-half hour back-and-forth among councilmembers, the mayor’s representatives, public health officials, and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, which concluded without a vote on the measure.

On one side, we had the mayor’s office, which argued that limiting sweeps of homeless camps poses a danger to public health. On the other, we had the bill’s sponsors, who argued that the sweeps themselves are what pose the real danger, citing a directive from the CDC stating that if shelter isn’t readily available, cities should “allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.”

That’s the short term debate over the issue in a nutshell. Longer term, though, it’s a fight that goes far deeper than that.

In February, councilmembers grilled Navigation Team representatives over data that indicated outreach workers weren’t offering shelter in roughly 96% of encampment removals. That came alongside the revelation that when offers of shelter were being made, they were only accepted around 24% of the time.

During that presentation, it was also estimated that the city has about 12 available beds a night to offer up when camps are cleared.

“When we say that we are making an offer of shelter, it doesn’t sound to me like we are making a meaningful offer of shelter,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda — a co-sponsor of the current bill limiting sweeps — said at the time.

It’s that point which truly hits at the crux of this issue. Seattle’s Navigation Team and Human Services Department has repeatedly emphasized that during these sweeps, they’re doing what they can to refer people to shelters, and that more often than not, it’s the campers themselves who are refusing those offers.

In the meantime, city officials have been resistant to criticism over their current approach, even taking to Twitter quibble with people over numbers, while tacitly admitting that the dozens of Seattle police officers on-site at sweeps aren’t expected to know or provide information about shelter availability to the very people they’re clearing out.

And yes, offers of shelter do appear to be getting made by the Navigation Team’s social workers. But it’s also obvious that we lack the means to truly support that strategy. When a camp like the one at Ballard Commons, or more recently, in the International District, is cleared, where are those people supposed to go?

Seattle Navigation Team: Should they stay or should they go now?

A portion of them can certainly accept the small handful of open beds the city has to offer them on any given night. But without available shelter space, the rest of them have to go somewhere. Campers are then left with no choice but to pitch their tents in another part of the city, leading us to inevitably go through this whole song and dance again weeks or months down the road.

Would having more available shelter actually lead to more accepted offers during sweeps? The answer to that was one of the few things everyone seemed to agree on during Wednesday’s committee meeting discussing the Seattle council’s proposed bill.

“If the Navigation Team had hotel rooms, tiny homes, and properly distanced enhanced shelter spaces to offer individuals who were in encampments that needed to be removed, most people at (Wednesday’s) meeting seemed to believe that the acceptance rate for offers of shelter would skyrocket,” SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield described.

So while we’re debating what to do with homeless camps during this pandemic, it would serve us well to figure out a better way forward once it ends. Maybe we don’t need to end these sweeps entirely in the long term, but what’s certain is that we need to do them better.

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