During a lengthy grilling from Seattle City Council members this morning, the city's Human Services Department admitted one particularly startling fact about its ongoing effort to tackle homelessness: only about 40 percent of people the city recently kicked out of illegal homeless encampments ended up in city shelters.
There are a lot of reasons that some homeless people might want to avoid sleeping in city shelter beds—bed bugs, limited access for their partner or pet, safety issues, substance abuse—and addressing all of them is incredibly complicated. Still, today's revelation undermines the city's defense of its continued sweeping of homeless encampments.
That defense, as outlined by the administration of Mayor Ed Murray: sweeping homeless encampments during a time when the mayor has declared a state of emergency on homelessness is an attempt to not just kick people out of illegal encampments, but to also move those people into shelter and, eventually, housing.
Yet data from today's city council briefing calls into question just how effective this strategy has been.
Since the emergency declaration, Murray's administration has cleared 38 encampments, city staff told the council today.
During those sweeps (which the city prefers to call "cleanups"), the city offers people living in tents 72 hours' notice and then shows up to offer social services, clean up waste, and kick people out of wherever they're camped. Mayor Ed Murray and his administration have said they're stepping up the social services piece of these "cleanup" efforts.
"The key purpose of the mayor's state of emergency and dedicating the corresponding $5.3 million to address homelessness is to move people off the streets into shelter or stable housing," Katherine Jolly, a spokesperson for the Human Services Department, wrote in an e-mail to The Stranger last week.
So how many people have the sweeps moved off the streets and into shelter or stable housing? Human Services and other city departments presented the following slide to city council members today:
The bottom line of that chart shows that in the sweeps of illegal encampments since the state of emergency declaration, 184 people were present at encampments that were swept and just 74 of them accepted shelter services. The department also counted 60 people who accepted non-shelter services ranging from bus passes to substance abuse treatment. (There is some overlap between the group of 74 and the group of 60, but exactly how much was not specified.)
As Council Member Tim Burgess pointed out, that's only about 40 percent of the total number of people kicked out who've ended up in shelter.
"How real is the offer [of shelter]?" Burgess asked HSD Director Catherine Lester. "When someone says, 'I like that idea; I'll do that,' can we deliver?"
"Increasingly, yes," Lester responded, while also acknowledging that despite recently opened new shelter beds, the city still lacks enough shelter space to house every homeless person. Last year's one-night count found 2,813 people living unsheltered in Seattle. The city has opened about 250 new beds recently, adding to an estimated 1,600 beds that already existed.
When I followed up with Jolly, the HSD spokesperson, this afternoon, she continued to defend the "cleanups." Jolly says cleaning encampments is "addressing public health issue" and that "even if only 40 percent of folks accept shelter beds, that's still 40 percent more people housed and sheltered."
(Actually, given the numbers, sheltering "40 percent more" homeless people would mean getting a lot more than 74 people into housing, which only further illustrates the city's drastic need. But you get her point. Sheltering some people living outdoors is better than sheltering none of them.)
Just how many of the people counted in the city's graph didn't get into shelter because there was no space and how many refused shelter is still not clear. It's also not clear how many who didn't get into city shelter may have made it back to some other shelter situation, like a friend's house, with the help of a city-funded bus pass or other outreach.
"I appreciate that since the declaration of emergency more than 200 shelter beds have been added to the system," said Council Member Lisa Herbold, who requested today's briefing, in a statement afterward. "But I remain concerned that it is not sufficient to meet the emergency survival needs of the people our encampment removal practices displace.”
Throughout the meeting, Council Member Kshama Sawant repeatedly condemned any encampment sweeps—whether services are being offered or not.
"We are sweeping human beings out when they don't have any other place to go," Sawant said. Later, she added, "If we are declaring an emergency... the appropriate reaction should be let's stop the sweeping of encampments, period."
City council members had plenty of other concerns at today's briefing, including what happens to homeless people's belongings after sweeps. As this December Real Change story illustrates, some homeless people are away when the encampment is cleaned up, meaning they return to find all of their belongings gone. The city holds on to anything it decides isn't garbage for 60 days, Chris Potter from the city's Finance and Administrative Services Department told the council. The determination of what to keep is problematic on its own. For example, if a tent is "strewn with needles, the whole tent becomes a hazardous object and it is not kept," Potter said.
Then there's the process of getting back stuff that is kept. City staff say they leave a notice at the encampment site about how people can go about getting their stuff back. But that process can be difficult for people with limited access to transportation or phones or who may have difficulty navigating the city's bureaucracy.
When Potter claimed that storing homeless people's belongings—even when it isn't their choice to have those belongings stored—can be "a really useful tool in order to get somebody engaged with services," Council Member Lorena González pushed back.
"If taking people's property and putting it in storage where they have to jump through loops to get it back" is the city's best way of connecting people to services, González said, "we're doing something wrong."
Sally Bagshaw, who now chairs the council's human services committee and has been consistent in her push for more shelter beds in the city, used that discussion to renew her call for more lockers for homeless people.
Expect to hear more about that and all the rest of these issues next month. Bagshaw will host a longer, more in-depth meeting about all this—including a presentation from outspoken advocates like Real Change's Tim Harris and public testimony—on February 10.