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Are ‘sweeps’ of Seattle homeless camps unconstitutional?

(File, Associated Press)
LISTEN: Are ‘sweeps’ of Seattle homeless camps unconstitutional?

There are more than 11,000 homeless people in Seattle and King County, and the state of emergency surrounding the city’s homeless crisis was a focal point of this year’s mayoral race.

While Mayor Jenny Durkan, who assumed office after winning the election in November, is in favor of police “sweeps” of homeless encampments, former candidate Nikkita Oliver believes such sweeps are inhumane. She joined Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien on KIRO Radio to talk about better solutions.

Lessons learned to fight the Seattle homeless crisis

The population of homeless people in the U.S. increased for the first time in seven years, according to a new federal report released last week. King County’s homeless population now ranks third in the nation – trailing only Los Angeles and New York City. Sweeps are one way the city has chosen to address the crisis of homelessness.

“There are very clear ways in which these sweeps violate the constitutional rights of those who are camping,” Oliver said during an interview with Seattle’s Morning News. During these “sweeps,” city officials give residents of an unauthorized encampment 72 hours’ notice before completely clearing out the campsite.

Oliver explained that the laws are overly broad and campers are sometimes not offered the full 72 hours required to evacuate if police or the city’s Navigation Team determine an “emergency” situation necessitates the sweep.

“There’s also supposed to be constitutional protections around the property of those who are living in the encampments, who are experiencing these sweeps. And oftentimes their property is destroyed, or not collected or retrieved in a way that they can find it later, and so the sweeps are not only unconstitutional but in a lot of ways they’re inhumane.”

Earlier this year, former Mayor Ed Murray announced the creation of the Navigation Team, which would aim to help people dislocated after camp sweeps find shelter solutions. However, Oliver argues these efforts are ultimately flawed because the city doesn’t have enough shelter space for its homeless population.

What goes on during a sweep?

Dave and Colleen were also joined by a camper who was forced to abandon a Ravenna-area site during a recent sweep.

“They pretty much show up and take pictures one day, and then come out the next day and put up a piece of paper that tells you they’re going to come and take everything down,” he said of the process. “They give you 72 hours, and then they show up 72 hours later and whatever you don’t have normally, they just kind of chew you off and destroy all your stuff.”

And by that, the camper literally means “destroy” – officials will bulldoze a structure and clear out debris. But the process can be disruptive for small communities of homeless people who are otherwise self-sustaining.

“Our area was clean, and they just literally strewn everything that was in our structure … to where it just looked like a big trash pile,” the camper said. “It’s really inhumane, especially on Christmas, to take everything from someone who’s already had everything taken. Kind of kick them while they’re down. (I am) just wishing I could move back to that spot or be told where I can go.”

Still, others argue that the sweeps can constitute a violation of property rights (when officers seize, destroy, or search tents and belongings), which was the subject of a lawsuit earlier this year.

If sweeps aren’t the answer, what is?

For his part, the homeless camper believes the city could designate greenbelts and out-of-sight areas for camps, so that homeless people can find shelter there without fear of being evicted.

Oliver argues that the city can be smarter about the way it uses homeless funds.

“It’s going to be on our public officials to draw some hard lines in the sand and say that we value the health of our city,” Oliver said, “and those who are living in encampments are a part of our city. So, we’re going to pour resources into human services and to developing shelters and affordable housing as a way of ensuring that everyone has a right to stay here and be healthy.”

“… We need to be finding humane ways of ensuring that people have safe places to be and sleep. The city has not effectively done that; its answer has been to sweep people around the city as opposed to providing multiple spaces where people can safely live … And people are self-managing — they’re managing their own spaces and ensuring that they’re safe. And they just want a safe space to live and be.”

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