With reporting by Alex Garland
Wednesday morning under I-90 at Rainier Avenue S, an outreach team and the Seattle Police Department performed a homeless sweep. People were living in sleeping bags, hammocks and using cardboard boxes. There were large piles of trash. Approximately two truck beds were seen overflowing, but much of the mass was made up of large slats and pallets.
SPD said the homeless individuals were given notice and signs were posted around the area of the looming sweep. Some, according to police, had subsequently already left the area by morning.
Those who remained were put in contact with outreach, but some refused services. One such person was a woman who said she didn’t want a shelter because of “bedbugs and bitches” or “not nice people.” Health concerns like bed bugs and communicable diseases are frequently cited for reasons some avoid shelters. Others tend to say their stuff will get stolen in shelters, and/or they’ll get paired with bad influences or predators.
SPD officer Brad DeVore was on the scene.
“We know there are issues with the process,” DeVore said.
REACH social workers Gabe Reyes-Gomez and Joel Killough, in connection with Seattle’s Navigation Team, said there are many layers to why sweeps happen. Sometimes it’s a part of the Washington State Department of Transportation, other times it’s planned maintenance for Seattle parks.
Killough said some of those swept Wednesday accepted shelter and some decided to move to unsanctioned encampments. There weren’t specific numbers available. He understands moving from one encampment to another is difficult, especially knowing the alternate might also get swept.
An American Civil Liberties Union representative was present as well, but there wasn’t much to do.
Casey Jaywork, a member of the Transit Riders Union and Housing for All Coalition, was present and said only about two homeless individuals were still around.
“The sweeps compound harm by chasing people around in circles,” Jaywork said. “It sounds like most of them were displaced before authorities even arrived. People are not being moved from one dangerous to a less dangerous place, but from more visible to less visible places.”
Jaywork says he assumes homeless individuals know what’s best for them in their current situations. That’s why people leave before the sweeps occur, Jaywork says.
“This shows how the eviction part of the sweeps hurts the outreach part of the sweeps in many cases,” he said. “We heard this from outreach workers as well. It can make it harder to build relationships and stay in touch.”
An SPD spokesperson said he was not aware of any arrests made at the sweep.
Last year, there were 601 sweeps and Seattle spent $6,316,001.93 on the homelessness state of emergency as of January this year, according to city documents. UPDATE: Due to an editing error, the original version of this report stated that more than $6 million had been spent on sweeps. The $6.3 million is the amount spent on the homelessness state of emergency last year. We have corrected the error.
“All that money could be given to outreach and shelters instead,” Jaywork said.