Sweep of homeless camp outside Seattle City Hall draws criticism from activists, local leaders

Mar 10, 2022, 11:08 AM | Updated: 1:42 pm
Seattle City Hall homeless encampment, HOPE Team...
A homeless encampment outside Seattle City Hall getting removed on Wednesday. (Councilmember Tammy Morales)
(Councilmember Tammy Morales)

After a weeks-long standoff with mutual aid volunteers and local activists, a homeless camp outside Seattle City Hall was abruptly cleared Wednesday morning. But while Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office cited a need to clear the sidewalk of obstructions, others have criticized the removal.

City workers clear homeless camp outside Seattle City Hall

The initial plan was the clear the encampment located along Fourth Avenue between James and Columbia without prior outreach, after a 48-hour removal noticed was posted on Friday, Feb. 18. Two days later, activists organized by a group known as Stop the Sweeps Seattle arrived in the area, turning away Seattle Parks workers and remaining there for weeks.

In the days that followed, the planned sweep was put on hold with the arrival of below-freezing temperatures, as outreach teams stepped in to offer referrals to shelter spaces.

Then on Wednesday around 6 a.m., dozens of Seattle police officers cordoned off the intersection, giving campers just two hours to pack up their belongings and leave. Mayor Harrell’s office reports that outreach done between late February and Wednesday morning resulted in 22 referrals to 24/7 enhanced shelters and tiny homes. Seven of those referrals were made during the removal — some of whom were provided with Uber rides to shelter spaces — while nine others “voluntarily” left the area.

Despite the subsequent outreach made after the failed initial attempt to clear the encampment, activists and local leaders alike have spoken out against the sweep in the ensuing 24 hours. That included the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which told MyNorthwest that it “did not know about it” ahead of time, and “do not support it.”

Stop the Sweeps issued a statement of its own as well, labeling it a “reckless” move that impeded the process of moving campers into housing.

“The City has not created enough services, housing or transitional housing. So service providers show up with little or nothing to give,” a spokesperson with the group said in a written statement, noting that there were just four available shelter beds in Seattle as of early Wednesday morning. “Spaces in tiny house villages or other transitional housing are few and far between and they come available slowly. It takes time to connect people to those places.”

A lack of available space has posed issues for offers of shelter for years now, too. While Seattle City Council approved funding for over 1,600 new non-congregate shelter units in 2021, but as Councilmember Andrew Lewis noted last year, “few of those funded shelter resources have been realized,” with efforts curtailed by a series of “bureaucratic bottlenecks” related to land use regulations, “NIMBY opposition,” and limited capacity from providers.

A referral also doesn’t always end in placement. An unhoused individual is often responsible for their own transportation while available spaces aren’t guaranteed to result in permanent shelter, which will frequently see someone back out on the street within a matter of days.

Seattle Councilmember Tammy Morales address Wednesday’s encampment removal as well, reiterating her opposition to sweeps as “traumatic events that only accomplish pushing people from one street to another.”

“The reality is that we as a whole city need to be better at acknowledging the humanity of our unhoused neighbors,” she said on Twitter.

The city’s own justification for clearing the camp relates to a push from the mayor’s office to remove obstructions from sidewalks, pointing to a need to keep public rights of way clear for pedestrians. Removing any camps that aren’t deemed to be obstructing public rights of way requires the presence of outreach workers to offer shelter and services, as well as 72 hours notice, although a vast majority of encampment removals in recent years have not been treated as such.

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Stop the Sweeps advocates further posit that “‘obstruction’ is supposed to mean something causing immediate danger, not something causing inconvenience, discontent or complaints.”

“They are misusing emergency terms in a failed attempt to justify violent displacement and treating unhoused people as if they have no rights, no needs, no dignity,” Stop the Sweeps member Katelyn claimed. “This clearly wasn’t any kind of obstruction emergency, because after the sweep they fenced off the sidewalk so no one can use it now at all.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Harrell clarified Wednesday evening that fencing put in along Fourth Avenue after tents were removed “is associated with private construction scheduled to begin in the near future.”

Shortly after it was installed, many in the area reported that the new fencing was blocking a large portion of the sidewalk from pedestrians. Harrell’s office says the issue has since “been corrected,” with the fence getting “moved back so that there is room for people to get by.”

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Sweep of homeless camp outside Seattle City Hall draws criticism from activists, local leaders