Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced on Friday that a representative of the city’s Office for Civil Rights will now monitor all sweeps of homeless encampments, following reports that the process has been fraught with miscommunication and lack of coordination among different agencies. The city is supposed to provide notice three days before clearing an illegal encampment (there are three city-authorized camps), and to send outreach workers to connect homeless residents with shelter and other services. Guidelines around handling unauthorized encampments also state that the city should store personal belongings for owners to pick up later.
But on Friday morning, before Murray made his announcement, the Seattle Times published an account of the many ways in which policy has not been followed to date. Many times, city and state crews have begun to clear out residents and their possessions before outreach workers arrived. Times reporters attended several sweeps at which state workers had posted a 72-hour warning, but not actually arrived to do cleanup until the window had closed. And many encampment residents said their belongings had been thrown away, not stored for them.
Now Murray says an Office for Civil Rights official will attend every sweep, to ensure that outreach protocols are followed. “It is our responsibility to ensure these cleanups are done right and done in a way that serves the needs of people living in these areas, who are enduring extremely difficult circumstances,” he said in a statement. “We recognize the protocol under which cleanups are conducted needs both improvement and clarity.”
Murray also said recently he will develop a task force to review city protocols on camp cleanups. On Friday, he said he would invite the state DOT to join that task force, considering many of Seattle’s largest homeless encampments are on DOT property under and around freeways.
Since Murray declared a state of emergency around homelessness in November, the city has dedicated over a third of more than $7 million in emergency spending to clean up unauthorized encampments. Many advocates for the homeless say the experience can be traumatizing for people, disrupting their relationship with outreach workers who may be helping them acquire IDs or transportation or jobs. “It can often set people back,” said Chloe Gale, co-director of outreach nonprofit REACH.
The city has also established three authorized encampments — combinations of tent cities and tiny house villages that receive some city funding for amenities and case management. Advocates argue that they provide an element of stability missing for people sleeping on the streets, or in illegal encampments they’re likely to be displaced from.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.