City’s response to unauthorized homeless encampments evolves

Wednesday afternoon the City Council heard from the Human Services Department and the Mayor’s Office about how the city’s approach to unauthorized homeless encampments continues to evolve. There was a bit of good news, some key insights on best practices, and some fairly blunt admissions of things that simply aren’t working — or are about to get worse.

Presenting to the Human Services and Public Health Committee were Catherine Lester, Director of HSD, and Scott Lindsay, Special Assistant to the Mayor working on police-related issues.

Lester, whose organization is the main driver of outreach efforts to the homeless people living in unauthorized encampments, led off. Unfortunately, Lester was her typical font of flowery qualitative language that managed to avoid specifics.  She did note that since the beginning of November there have been 253 outreach visits to unsanctioned encampments, and through those efforts 123 people have been “referred to shelter,” but she once again failed to explain whether “referred” means that the person was offered shelter or actually accepted that offer — and that has been a point of confusion for several months that clouds the issue of how effective the outreach efforts are.  Lester also mentioned that there has been a significant uptick in complaints related to cleaning up encampments, and there have been 181 cleanups in response to 700 complaints since November. Lucky for Lester, Council member Kshama Sawant was not present to grill her over “sweeps” and force her to give details as to what is really happening.

But what Lester really wanted to talk about was aligning outreach investments. According to her, many different departments and outside providers are making investments in outreach, but “they don’t hang together as a continuum.” She describes a key opportunity as,” How do we think about outreach as a continuum, a seamless practice, and not as this fragmented system that currently occurs?”

Committee chair Sally Bagshaw tried to press her for specifics on implementation, asking “What is the plan for moving us past talk to action?” Lester’s characteristic response was… talk. “I want to come back to Council at the beginning of summer with a continuum. We don’t have that prepared response for you today, but it’s one I feel great urgency around and the Mayor has expressed great urgency around it… it’s iterative and in development now.”  Bagshaw, trying to find some way past Lester’s stonewalling, offered “You don’t have to come back with something fully baked. We want to be part of that discussion to develop it.”

At this point Lindsay took over, and he was a breath of fresh air with clear insights and actions. “There is a remarkable consensus both among police officers and outreach workers that substance abuse issues are at the root of the issues they are dealing with. Many have co-occurring mental health issues, but well in excess of 50% of the time we find substance abuse issues. We reach them and try to change their behavior.”

He then went on to explain their “theory of trying to change their behavior”:

“Law enforcement alone doesn’t work. Outreach alone doesn’t work. The magic formula is some combination of the two: outreach, plus some kind of escalating consequences that forces them to change their personal calculus, gets results.”

Lindsay explained that they are introducing and/or modifying several city programs to build in a tighter coordination between law enforcement and outreach. This includes “multidisciplinary” programs that send police officers and outreach workers out together to unauthorized encampments where there are high-priority public health and/or safety issues, and similar teams to engage with known individuals “who are creating specific challenges.”

Lindsay gave examples of homeless individuals who responded to this model of engagement when past efforts had failed; one person in particular had been homeless for about three years, and the paired engagement got her off the street and into a facility in four weeks.

Lester, drawsing on her background as a social worker, provided a key insight: “… it’s the window of crisis that you exploit to move toward a resolution.” But, she explained, you don’t know when that window will open. Burgess pointed out, “That’s why you need on-demand addiction and mental health services.” If you can’t act when the window opens up, then it may be years until it opens again.  Which raised the question about whether the city is making progress on creating on-demand addiction available. Lindsay claims that the city’s opiate and heroin task force is looking into it.

So that was the good news: people are getting smarter and adjusting tactics to move people — often the most challenging cases for outreach and law enforcement — off the street and get them the services they need. The bad news, however, was the “road to housing” program: the effort to help people living in RV’s and cars.

Lindsay explained that the road to housing program is still very early; they are trying to move people into designated safe lots and “safe zones” along city-owned right-of-way streets, but “it’s a difficult task and we’re not getting acceptance of substantive offers.” However, the same paired law enforcement/outreach program has led to successful interventions in the most serious cases where people are dumping human waste and/or needles in the street.

Council member Herbold, whose district hosts many people living in RV’s and cars, noted that because the city has decided not to open up another safe lot, the people who voluntarily moved to a safe zone may have no place to go at the end of May when the permit for parking in safe zones expires. “We may be breaking faith with them,” she said, and asked what the Mayor’s plan is. And this is where the news gets really bad, according to Lindsay:

“It’s turned out to be very expensive to support people in safe lots. It’s costing an exorbitant amount of money to support the safe lot that probably nobody here would feel comfortable continuing on an ongoing basis. The safe zones are a much smaller investment and have as a result much more issues in terms of the community impacts, safety concerns, health concerns. Plus safe zones require more policing, so you haven’t seen the hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours that SPD officers have committed to interacting with that population. There are also very real siting issues. I’ve scoured the city; it’s very difficult to figure out where to site them, plus provide the right amount of community guarantees, protections, law enforcement, plus the outreach in order to support a substantial population. Right now the thinking is how do we transition people humanely from living in these conditions into a much more stable and affordable form of shelter that’s not living in RV’s. May would be too early to make a hard cutoff, but for a long term proposition t’s a very expensive option.”

Lindsay went on to explain that in his view the ideal situation is to have religious organizations, with parking lots that are only used 1-2 days a week and connections to support and outreach organizations, provide use of space for cars and RV’s. The city has spent $300,000 on a program to organize such spaces across the city, but the result of that investment was only 12 spaces, none of which can accommodate a 40-foot RV (apparently what they are frequently seeing now). They continue to try to make such arrangements, but according to Lindsay, “our original hope of creating a vast city-wide program in church parking lots has not panned out,” though both Bagshaw and Gonzalez noted that churches have recently contacted them and offered to help.

So the city’s efforts to address homeless people living in cars and RV’s is coming up short across the board: safe lots are prohibitively expensive to operate, safe zones cause a whole other set of problems, and alternative sites at churches have not materialized. If you have a bright idea for how to fix this, I’m sure Lindsay and the Mayor would love to hear it — though I am sure they will not give up trying to find solutions.

In wrapping up his presentation on the new “paired” approach to outreach, Lindsay offered a cogent and insightful summary of where we are and the path forward:

“The profile of the individuals who are common across all these programs and that you hear from constituents about are very frequently stuck in a cycle of addiction that has hijacked their brain. In order to support that addiction… they are involved in a whole variety of criminal activity that is putting all sorts of stresses on the city. Seattle and San Francisco are off the charts in terms of property crime right now compared to all of our peer cities. Very low violent crime but high property crime. The common denominator is a high number of people stuck in this cycle of addiction. What’s our theory to address it? Identify them, convince them to accept services & to try to get treatment. It needs to have tight coordination between law enforcement and outreach workers. A drug has hijacked their brain and in most circumstances asking them to change their lives is not going to work. Law enforcement alone also isn’t changing their behavior. A new model is the only choice we have left.”

Then it was time for Council members to remind us of how far we still need to go.  Gonzalez began by raising the spectre of Fentanyl, a new, cheap street drug that is being mixed with heroin to create a product that is about 50 times more potent than heroin alone. Lindsay let the Council members know that it’s on their radar: though it hasn’t hit Seattle yet,  “it’s coming and it will be disastrous. The prognosis short and medium term is not good for the city. Heroin is flooding the I-5 corridor… dealers who used to have ounces are now carrying heroin by the pound. Drug cartels have made a decision to push product. Prices have hit rock bottom. And now there’s new replacement options… micrograms will provide the same high. A few more micrograms can easily prove fatal. We’ve only seen a handful of Fentanyl overdoses do far, but we expect to see more.”

Herbold expressed her frustration about the narrowness of the conversation. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the people who we need to push to make a change in their lives but not about the people out there who are living unsheltered for economic reasons.” Noting the statistics correlating rising rent with increased homelessness rates,  she noted that they hadn’t touched on the question of where we’re moving people to after a successful outreach engagement.

Bagshaw hammered on her pet cause: setting up 24-hour shelters, “where people can come in and get stabilized,” instead of 11-hour ones that kick homeless people back out on the street during the day. “People say there’s no silver bullet, but there’s silver buckshot. There’s things that we can do.”

Bagshaw asked Lester and Lindsay to return in late May with another update and more specifics. She also invited Chloe Gail of REACH, who was scheduled to co-present today, to come back and brief the committee at its next meeting in two weeks.

One final note from the meeting: Bagshaw pointed out that Mayor Murray has posted a job opening for a “Director of Homelessness,” essentially a homelessness response czar to coordinate the city’s responses across departments and with outside partners and to handle external communications. From the job description:

This director will lead and align efforts across City departments, provide oversight and evaluation of data and outcomes, provide strategic guidance on developing policy and protocols, and lead external engagement and communication strategies. This position reports directly to the Mayor and will serve as a key advisor on system and policy reforms needed both in our service delivery system and within departments to more effectively address the crisis of homelessness. The Director will act as a primary spokesperson on behalf of the Mayor and lead the administration’s engagement with a variety of stakeholders, such as regional and government partners, service providers, philanthropic partners, and community and neighborhood groups.

For the record, I pointed out the need for such a position two and a half months ago; it was so obvious even I could figure it out.


  1. I’m surprised no one mentioned LEAD here (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion). That’s the one-two punch that seems to be working, and needs to be funded.

    1. LEAD is really aimed at a different thing: stopping youth from entering the criminal justice system. It is a fantastic program and definitely should be funded at a much larger scale, but it’s just aimed at a different need.

        1. They don’t advertise it as a program specifically targeted at youth; they bill it as tied to low-level drug and prostitution offenders without a history of violent crime. But if you look at their presentations, one of the justifications for the program is that those are the crimes that are the gateways for youth — particularly youth of color and from low-income households — into the criminal justice system which is often a one-way street for them. So a big goal of LEAD diverting them along different paths with specific interventions that help them turn their life around before they get permanently trapped in the system.

          That said, there is certainly overlap between being homeless and low-level drug and prostitution offenses. And LEAD does help older folks too. But part of what we’ve learned as a society about helping homeless people with drug and/or mental health issues is that you need to approach it from a “housing first” perspective; it’s nearly impossible to treat addiction and mental health problems if you don’t have a roof over your head. And (to the best of my recollection) LEAD isn’t really set up to get people into long-term shelter, so it’s going to be less helpful for homeless people.

Comments are closed.