Year two of Seattle’s homelessness state of emergency marked by City Hall sleep-in, debate over ‘sweeps’

(Images: Alex Garland for CHS)

Two years ago, Seattle declared a state of emergency for homelessness and plans to boost spending to address the issue by a few million dollars. To mark this declaration and stop homeless sweeps, activists slept overnight in Seattle City Hall and on the plaza after they gave over 100 testimonies against so-called “sweeps” before peacefully wrapping up their camps Thursday morning.

“As many times as I’ve stood up here since June, I’ve stood at homeless camps with friends,” Travis Thompson said, addressing a Seattle City Council budget hearing Wednesday night as the sleep-in got underway. He described what happens when police come in to remove the homeless. “What little stability you have is ruined and we put them closer to death by doing that … This needs to happen right now, people are dying!”

At Wednesday night’s budget hearing, both Stop The Sweeps and pro-sweeps group Speak Out Seattle offered ample testimony while people filled the overflow room and rallied outside. As it got dark, others downstairs played in a makeshift band with its own tap dancer. Some said it reminded them of the Occupy movement. People slept in tents, gathered supplies, and huddled around a few heating lamps.

Stop The Sweeps hosted the overnight sleep-in. The group arose as sweeps and sanctioned encampments were initially debated and was born out of Seattle tent encampment Nickelsville, operated by the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort/WHEEL.

Sweeps is a Seattle activist term that describes when homeless people are evicted from unsanctioned encampments, given referrals, moved off the street, and belongings trashed.

It was unclear if the permit granted for the activism in City Hall would automatically expire when the testimonies stopped. To evade this, activists kept the testimonies going for as long as possible. One speaker was Feanette Black Bear, a water protector who went to Standing Rock and member of the Lakota Sioux Tribe. “1492, that’s when the first sweep was,” she said, “for Native Americans.” Native Americans today hold the greatest disproportionate representation in the homeless population: They make up 12% of the Seattle homeless population when (last census report from 2010) they make up only 0.4% of Seattle’s total population.

Glenn Coter, a veteran, testified as well. He didn’t let the audience forget that his fellow veterans also comprise a sizable amount of the homeless population (1,329 people). Coter asserted Seattle has to return the obligation and duties that the veterans gave to their country.

Former Seattle Weekly reporter-turned-activist Casey Jaywork turned to the audience during his testimony and addressed the Speak Out Seattle group in white shirts.

“The reason I am here speaking today is because your policies will kill my friends,” Jaywork said.

Other speakers primarily cited concerns about cleanliness to support the sweeps. Speak Out Seattle felt their argument centers around evidence-based practices.

Amy Fleetwood with Columbia Legal Service explained, however, no matter how respectable a homeless person tries to live outside they’re still treated the same. She described one individual’s experience: A 72-year-old man was allowed to live on a small portion of someone’s home property, located close to a hospital, while he received treatment for cancer. He could no longer live on the property, however, when neighbors complained.

Among other speakers were concerned Seattle residents and neighbors, members of Socialist Alternative, Transit Riders Union, safe consumption supporters, the Tech Workers Coalition, Plymouth HousingSAFE in Seattle, homeless outreach workers, and nurses.

As people left the room, they found the downstairs plaza alive with brass instruments and a crowd of bobbing bodies. Among them was Jerome Womack on his harmonica. He worked with Real Change News while he was homeless. After his dancing efforts, his tie came lose and he was worried how he would look for his testimony.

“I’m a good dancer,” Womack said, proud and happy as sweat dripped down his forehead. “I’m there for them [the homeless].”

Womack himself is still homeless and living in a downtown Downtown Emergency Service Center shelter.

Another man, Jonnie Philip Edward Jr, age 59, stumbled upon the event and figured he’d grab a nice place to stay for the night.

“I think it’s wonderful,” he said of the testimonies.

By 10 PM, Seattle City Hall security guards asked people to stay downstairs in the overnight room if they weren’t in the hearing room. There were no reported arrests.

Interim Mayor Tim Burgess gave a memo to the council the same day advising them to not support a budget proviso blocking the removal of unsanctioned encampments. Burgess wrote that he talked with Seattle Police Department Chief Kathleen O’Toole and Seattle Fire Department Chief Harold Scoggins and, from that conversation, determined unsanctioned encampments pose safety and health hazards.

Also supporting this memorandum were Catherine Lester from Seattle’s Department of Human Services and George Scarola from the Homelessness Emergency Response.

The memorandum also cited the number of complaints fielded on homelessness:
As of October 18th, the Seattle Customer Service Bureau received 4,389 complaints related to unauthorized encampments this year. It’s on track to nearly double the total amount of complaints from 2016 when 213 encampments were removed. This year’s number of encampment removals are similar.

All Home’s report counting the number of homeless people in King County included new tactics so one cannot rely on the comparative rise. It’s 2017 Count Us In report found 5,485 people unsheltered. All Home’s 2016 one (called One Night Count) found a19 % increase in people unsheltered in King County compared to the year prior.

Portland, California cities, and Hawaii also declared state of emergencies.

While previous mayor Ed Murray originally made the emergency declaration for Seattle, he later made the decision to conduct homeless sweeps. At first, this was done haphazardly but it now also occurs with significant outreach and advanced notice — thanks largely to anti-sweep actions.

Legislation pushed forward with the help of Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and the American Civil Liberties Union added restrictions. It also created Seattle’s Navigation Team, comprised of outreach workers and specially trained SPD officers. The Navigation Team visits both unsanctioned and sanctioned encampments that are with or without risk of removal.

Yet, the Council ended up putting $1.5 million of the emergency funds toward encampment sweeps. The sweeps occur when they’re deemed a health and public safety hazard.

In the early months after Murray’s state of emergency declaration, the city conducted 38 encampment sweeps where only 40% of the people accepted shelter. To this day, people’s belongings are still thrown out, especially if dirty or wet, unless their names are on items.

Most recently, council members introduced the HOMES tax (Housing, Outreach and Mass-Entry Shelter)last month. First introduced by Mike O’Brien and Kirsten Harris-Talley, it has found support with council members Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant but not with the current mayor nor the other four Council members.

As for the future, Seattle City Council Position 8 candidate Teresa Mosqueda made a quick appearance before leaving to prepare for a Thursday rally. Her opponent, Jon Grant, camped through the night.

Both mayoral candidates Cary Moon and Jenny Durkan say they agree homelessness and affordable housing are crises for which Seattle must fund. They differ on how that’s accomplished, however. Moon has criticized the Housing And Livability Agenda for lacking transparency and is strongly anti-sweeps. Durkan wants to build more housing but is pro-sweep. She tends to tiptoe around the subject by nitpicking the definition of sweeps: As long as they include referrals and services, she thinks sweeps are fine.

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17 thoughts on “Year two of Seattle’s homelessness state of emergency marked by City Hall sleep-in, debate over ‘sweeps’

  1. This is a very unbalanced article….the author obviously is in favor of stopping the so-called “sweeps,” which is a word used by activists to try and inflame the issue and make the City appear inhumane. The City Council hearing was dominated by the anti- forces, but in my opinion they are a minority, and there is a substantial “silent majority” who do not want the camps in our midst, as evidenced by the huge increase in complaints to the Customer Service Bureau.

    Being “pro-sweeps” (if done the way the City is now conducting them, with lots of outreach first and referral to shelters and transitional housing) is not the same as “anti-homeless.” Both sides can agree that we need to provide more in the way of sheltered housing, and much less in the way of unsanctioned encampments.

    It’s beginning to seem like the upcoming mayoral election will be, in a sense, a referendum on this issue.

  2. Another biased article from Kelsey. In every article she writes it’s clear what side she is on. Capitol Hill Seattle used to be much more balanced in it’s coverage.

    • CHS includes a rotating cast of reporters, writers, and contributors and we have depended on a few core people like Kelsey over the years. I’ll continue to shape the site this way. I edited this piece and stand by every word of it. It’s her reporting. Her voice. And her story of the night and the ongoing state of emergency. It’s fair and humane — our two biggest priorities at CHS.

  3. “the city conducted 38 encampment sweeps where only 40% of the people accepted shelter.”

    Why did the 60% accept shelter, why did the 40% reject?

    What are the shelter options Seattle has currently and how are they funded(underfunded)?

    Start asking questions that engender solutions to problems or move the conversation forward and I will be an enthusiastic supporter of CHS.

    • I’ll be more than happy to look into this. I heard while I was there that part of the reason it’s refused is because the shelters offered are in poor conditions or a space where people’s stuff will get stolen. That, however, requires a whole other story. It’s not the type of thing I can simply throw into an already-long piece. It’s on my radar though! Good thoughts

    • Valid questions to ask! I hope you WILL look into this issue, Kelsey. It has been repeated over and over again that homeless people reject shelters because they claim they are “unsafe,” but I think the real reason is that they can’t use drugs or alcohol there. Why would they otherwise not prefer a place which is warm and dry vs. a camp which is cold and wet? Shelters are not fancy, but they do provide the basics.

    • There is more recent data on the percentage of people who accept offers of shelter, and it’s not good news. According to an article in TheSeattleTimes, the city’s “Navigation Team” made contact with 5800 homeless between February and late October of this year. Only 581 (about 10%) accepted referrals to safe-shelter spaces.

      Why are 90% of homeless people refusing shelter, even when it’s available? Doesn’t there need to be more pressure applied to improve the acceptance rate? Should we continue to allow homeless people to occupy our public spaces when better and safer housing is offered?

    • Our shelter system as it is depends on not everyone trying to get inside, or there would be mayhem. There is not nearly the room. The new navigation center is full and its earliest residents have run up against the time limit, with no housing available for them. Staff are getting the time limit extended so people are not exited back to the jungle. The new First Presbyterian shelter, which, like the nav center, fills from campers displaced via the sweeps, is filling up fast and may be full by now. Are we ready for the 5,000+ people outside to all try to get into the few shelter spaces which will turn over tonight? Rather than just blame those who won’t go inside, let’s make more room for the many who would like to come in, and then work on the hard cases.

    • @fjnd: Do you doubt the accuracy of the report from the Navigation Team? I don’t. When they say that 90% of homeless people contacted refused to accept a place in safe-shelter, I assume they were referring to ALL types of shelter, including overnight places. The city’s policy is to refer people only if there is room. But I do agree with you that we need much more in the way of more longer-term housing, such as the Navigation Center and the building recently opened by Plymouth Housing.

    • Bob: Thanks for finding the new data re: shelter refused! Will definitely find the article and see where the report lies so I can keep tabs on it.

  4. As a formerly homeless “Ave Rat” back in the 90s I have an idea of why some homeless people reject shelters. They were pretty scary places with a real predator/prey vibe and I got scabies for one once so I avoided them, we would camp in Ravenna park.

  5. If shelters, are anti-family,pet, drug etc at least you can start getting to the root cause of why people are not using them. From there I would hope they City and other organizations would adjust accordingly to meet those needs.

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