Back in October, when city and state staff evicted the last people living in a longstanding homeless encampment underneath I-5 known as The Jungle, not all of them were willing to go into indoor shelter. For those who wouldn't or couldn't get into shelters or housing, the city offered an alternative: a lot near The Jungle at Royal Brougham Way with room for about 100 people. Residents called it "The Field."
Today, five months after telling homeless people to go there, the city has ordered people to leave that site.
The operation to clear The Field, which began this morning, mirrored the high-profile sweep of The Jungle. Police surrounded the camp, blocking reporters or protesters from entering. City and state staffers canvassed the muddy area inside, ordering people to leave, telling them about nearby shelters, storing some personal items, and trashing everything else. Like at The Jungle, the city has defended the sweep, arguing the camp is too dangerous to remain open. Advocates have wondered where the people living there are supposed to go. And the residents—today with the added misery of pouring rain—have packed up their belongings and left.
A 25-year-old man was arrested during the cleanup. Seattle Police Department spokesperson Jonah Spangenthal-Lee said the man was a protester, not a resident of the camp. The man entered an area where police were not allowing non-residents, was asked to leave, and refused, Spangenthal-Lee said. He was arrested for obstruction.
It's unclear exactly how many people were on site and affected by the sweep. In the fall, at least 70 people were living at the encampment; Cory Potts, a volunteer who's been organizing campers at The Field, said he recently counted 77 tents inside. A spokesperson for the city's Human Services Department said between 20 and 40 people were still on site this morning.
And, just like during the sweep of The Jungle, the question looming over the endeavor all morning was: Where are those campers supposed to go?
According to HSD, outreach workers from several organizations offered people spots at three local shelters, and at least one of which filled up this morning. Even when shelter spaces are available, some people can't or won't follow rules at those shelters. Others have pets, possessions, or partners they want to bring with them and can't take to a shelter offering a mat on the floor.
"A lot of us can't make it in these barrier shelters due to one reason or another and we don't think that it's fair that we should be forced to go to shelters," Reavy Washington, who lived at the camp, told the Seattle City Council Monday. "We would really like to stay where we are. We can deal with the situations as they're arising."
A man who gave his name as Michael Sutton stood under an overpass near the encampment this morning with a black duffel bag and a gray blanket folded neatly on top. He said he arrived in Seattle about two weeks ago and stayed at The Field last night because he was tired of staying at the Union Gospel Mission shelter. "I'd rather stay here," he said. "You don't smell people. You can pick your own area." Sutton said police arrived at The Field around 7 am today to tell campers to leave.
"If you really want to help people, kicking them out of their homes and making people move around is not the way to do it," another resident of The Field told the city council Monday. "How can you help people if you don't even know where they're at?"
The city's long-promised 24-hour Navigation Center is supposed to help address the shortfalls in the city's current shelter system, but has faced delays and is not yet open. (When the mayor first announced that shelter, his office said residents of The Field would be prioritized for spots there. So much for that.) Sanctioned tent encampments and hotel vouchers were also "being looked at" for campers affected today, said Sola Plumacher, a strategic adviser at HSD.
The city's reasons for clearing the area are the same ones they usually cite when doing sweeps (last year there were 605 sweeps): garbage, human waste, and a rat infestation. But their case for clearing the area is also bolstered by recent charges against two men who allegedly raped and trafficked teenage girls in The Jungle and The Field, according to charging documents.
"It attracted a very bad element and it became a magnet for some very bad actors—that’s what I’m going to call a child rapist, a bad actor," the mayor's public safety adviser, Scott Lindsay, said in an interview Monday evening. "Letting people sleep outside in unregulated, unsanctioned spaces is a recipe for them to be exploited by predators."
Yet The Field is "a situation of the city’s own making," said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.
In the fall, Seattle reached an agreement with the state Department of Transportation to allow people to camp on the land and delivered dumpsters and portable toilets to the area. The Union Gospel Mission—a religious organization the mayor's office relies on to do some homeless outreach because it doesn't cost the city anything—promised to do outreach to the people living there. Given all that, Eisinger said, "the city has a moral, public health, and public safety responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t just set an arbitrary deadline and hope that some portion of people [living in the encampment] wander off."
"People will move to another area," Eisinger added. "They will still be homeless. They will still be in need… It just does not make sense."
The mayor's office claims they've tried to address the public health needs at the site. Lindsay said that the portable toilets the city delivered to the camp were vandalized and the dumpsters weren't used. The city has refused to deliver fire extinguishers to The Field because they can be "used for their chemical components" and will not deliver rat traps to the camp because public health officials say the only way to address the rat problem is to clear out the people living there completely, Lindsay said.
Residents of the encampment say crime at the site has decreased and they can address the health concerns with help from the city. By the end of the day Monday, four city council members signed a letter asking the mayor's office to delay the sweep, but the mayor's office wasn't persuaded.
City staff on site today said they expect the cleanup effort to be finished in two or three days. The debate over encampments, though, will persist well beyond that—and into election season.
Across the street from The Field, Jon Grant, a candidate for city council and former head of the Tenants Union of Washington State, stood with a group of volunteers who've been working with the people inside the camp. Nearby, a group of bike cops huddled next to Seattle Police Department vehicles, sipping coffee from paper cups. Grant disputed the city's claims that dumpsters hadn't been used. He said he and other volunteers have collected garbage and filled the dumpsters at the camp only to have the city not pick up that garbage.
"The city is setting up the encampment to fail and then using that as a justification to evict them," Grant said. "What are they accomplishing by doing this? It's the definition of insanity."
This story is developing and will be updated.