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.

How King County is looking to keep homeless safe from coronavirus

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.

MyNorthwest Blog

Seahawks Broncos...
Bill Kaczaraba

How ’bout those Seahawks!?!

The Seahawks season that began with plenty of doubt started with a win over our former quarterback and ended with a playoff appearance.
20 days ago
Tulalip Christmas Lights 1...
Bill Kaczaraba

2023 – The light has just begun, Seattle days are getting longer

We send you into the new year with the winter lights from the Tulalip Casino in Marysville. We wish you a very successful 2023.
1 month ago
happy holidays...
MyNorthwest Staff

Happy Holidays from KIRO Newsradio, Seattle Sports, and AM 770 KTTH!

To close out 2022, everyone at KIRO Newsradio, Seattle Sports, and AM 770 KTTH want to wish you happy holidays!
1 month ago
WWII Veterans...
Bill Kaczaraba

Dad is just one hero on this Veterans Day

On this Veterans Day, MyNorthwest editor Bill Kaczaraba remembers his dad who served in the Army during World War II.
3 months ago
Mariners Playoffs...
Michael Simeona

Relive Cal Raleigh’s magical home run that sent Mariners to playoffs

Relive Cal Raleigh's game-winning home run that sent the Mariners to the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
4 months ago
Building Black Wealth Graphic_900x506...
MyNorthwest Staff

Watch: Celebrate Juneteenth with Draze’s third annual ‘Building Black Wealth’

Seattle rapper Draze is hosting a live virtual marketplace on Juneteenth for the third annual 'Building Black Wealth' this Sunday at 9:00 a.m.
8 months ago

Sponsored Articles

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Opinion: Seattle homeless camp sweeps are built to fail