City staff get grilled over homeless encampment sweeps

This morning three Seattle city staff members had the unpleasant duty of briefing the City Council on the city’s approach to removing unauthorized homeless encampments.

In the next couple of weeks there will be an annual “one night count” to get an accurate count of how many homeless people there are in Seattle, but it’s clear to everyone that the number continues to rise at an alarming rate. In November Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine issued an emergency proclamation to focus funds and streamline operations to help address the problem. Money has been funneled into increasing both the number and size of shelters to help get people off the streets, and into human services programs to help the homeless get essential services — and hopefully in time permanent housing. But the short-term situation continues to look bleak, with the number of homeless far exceeding the number of beds available. Many of them live in tents wherever they can find space. The city keeps a database of these unauthorized encampments and prioritizes them for removal based upon the severity of the public health and safety issues they present for the occupants and the surrounding community. But this process has come under public scrutiny, as on the surface it appears to be a heartless effort that just makes things worse for the homeless. There are stories being told, and retold, of belongings confiscated and thrown away, and of homeless people forced to move on and find a new location to camp out.

Homeless encampments around Seattle. Red dots are 3+ tents at the site; Blue dots are 2 or fewer.
Homeless encampments around Seattle. Red dots are 3+ tents at the site; Blue dots are 2 or fewer.


Three staff members involved in the city’s homeless encampment “sweeps” were called in front of the City Council this morning to provide a factual account of the sweeps and answer council members’ questions (and they had a lot). Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas, HSD Director Catherine Lester, and FAS staff member Chris Potter all testified this morning, presenting their side of things.

They explained that the city’s approach to removing homeless encampments was defined in 2008 through a Multi-Departmental Administrative Order (MDAR), which is the city’s way of making sure that the whole city administration does something the same way. This is important in this case because several city departments manage properties that homeless people set up camps on, including most notably Parks and the SDOT. The MDAR was defined through a public process by which public input was gathered and addressed. The result was a set of basic principles and a more detailed process.

Seattle's MDAR principles
Seattle’s MDAR principles

The three presenters went through step-by-step how a sweep happens. First, an encampment gets entered into the database; this could happen a number of ways, but the most common is by a citizen complaint to the city’s Customer Service Center. City staff then visit the site to understand what is going on. After the inspection, the site is prioritized for scheduling, based upon the seriousness of the public health and safety issues it presents. When scheduled, a city staffer posts notices around the site at least 72 hour before the day and time the removal is scheduled for. Between then and the removal, city staff conduct outreach to the site’s residents, offering the help of various city services and always offering to help them get to an alternate, authorized site. About 1/3 of the homeless people contacted accept the offer of alternative housing.

Outreach services offered by city staff
Outreach services offered by city staff

When the actual removal happens, all items at the site are also removed. The staff try to discern residents’ belongings from waste and discarded items; the belongings are gathered up and brought to a storage location, and a notice is left at the site to explain how the owner can claim them.

The council members had all sorts of questions and complaints about the process and poked holes in several places where it could go wrong. Council member O’Brien asked what happens if a homeless person (many of whom have irregular schedules) is not present when the outreach staffer comes by. Council member Gonzalez asked what happens if the homeless person is illiterate or does not speak English and therefore cannot read the postings. Council member Sawant raised the issue that city staff’s assessment of the difference between “belongings” and “garbage” is a difficult one, since a homeless person’s set of personal belongings may be very different than ours. Council member Herbold (with many others chiming in) wondered about why only 1/3 of offers for alternative shelter were accepted, a question which HSD director Lester had no good answer for, claiming that there is much that we do not know and stressing the need for enhanced data collection to understand the homeless situation better. She did say anecdotally that it can be one of several reasons: some had made other plans; some don’t want to go to shelters because of the perceived conditions at the shelters, or because of policy issues such as not accepting pets; some were able to be helped in other ways, such as those who needed financial help in order to travel to family or friends. Herbold voiced her concern, voiced by advocacy groups, that city staff were referring people to shelters that were already full and could not accept them; while no direct evidence of that was presented, all agreed that this should be investigated further. Council member Juarez, who represents North Seattle, noted that more city services were deployed “south of the Ship Canal” than north of it, and asked the staff to look at whether services should be redeployed to better serve the needs of the homeless in the north end. Council member O’Brien asked whether beds were available for mental health and substance abuse patients; Lester admitted that this was a current shortfall in their resources.

Lester wrapped up the presentation with three big thoughts:

  1. She stressed the importance of thinking about outreach more broadly and deeply. What does it mean to have an outreach continuum? In her experience, it isn’t cleanly separable from shelter and permanent housing.
  2. “There is so much we don’t know,” Lester said. “We need data, both numbers and stories, to help us serve real people.”
  3. Efforts need to focus on capacity — of individual providers and of the system as a whole.

O’Brien stressed that the MDAR rulemaking, while representing an honorable intent in 2008, should be revisited to see whether revisions should be made for the reality of the 2016 homeless crisis. He would like to see that process include both the public and stakeholders (city departments, advocacy organizations, and providers).

Council member Bagshaw, the chair of the Human Services and Public Health committee, announced that her committee would continue the discussion on February 10th in much greater depth. She invited stakeholders to participate in presentations, encouraging them to work together to prepare them. She also hoped that the session could continue into the evening with additional public comment.

The clear take-away from the session was that the city staff are by no means heartless; they are working to do their best under  resource constraints as well as an inherited set of rules. And yet the system is far from perfect. Everyone agreed, though, that the time is now to review and revise the system so that it can help more and hurt fewer.