The city continues to sweep homeless encampments like this one, where a man died from a fall onto the freeway last year.
The city continues to sweep homeless encampments like this one, where a man died from a fall onto the freeway last year. HG

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The ACLU of Washington is making clear its position on the city's ongoing sweeps of homeless encampments: They must stop.

In comments sent to the Seattle City Council today, Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the ACLU of Washington, urged the council to "consider public health solutions and authorizing funds for housing and other forms of safe and low-barrier shelter to help people get off of Seattle’s streets instead of simply chasing them from encampment to encampment. "

Those comments follow Monday's grilling from the city council of city department leadership about why—despite the fact that Mayor Ed Murray has declared a state of emergency on homelessness—homeless people are continually kicked out of tent encampments. That meeting revealed that, between the November emergency declaration and last week, the city has "cleaned up" at least 38 encampments of three tents or more and another 102 sites with two or fewer tents. Mayor Ed Murray's administration says it does its best to connect those living in encampments to services and shelter, but only 40 percent of the people forced out of encampments actually accepted shelter services, according to the city's numbers.

Today, the city council will hold a special meeting to approve a resolution that authorizes the mayor's latest emergency step: opening two new "safe lots" for people living in their vehicles and expediting a third city-sanctioned tent encampment.

The ACLU of Washington supports that move, Shaw writes, but sees a disconnect between those efforts and the endless encampment sweeps. From her comments (emphasis added):

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Unfortunately, at the same time that the resolution expresses the city’s commitment to providing for people experiencing homelessness, city agencies are sweeping homeless people out of “unauthorized camp sites” on city property. During these sweeps, city workers seize and often destroy personal property left at the sites, including items necessary to the individual’s health and safety. Because the authorized encampments and emergency shelters in Seattle are over capacity, the people living at these sites often have no alternative but to pack up and move to another unauthorized site, increasing the risk to their safety.

Columbia Legal Services, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, and the shelter organization SHARE have expressed similar concerns.

The City of Seattle and King County have increased shelter capacity recently, but those shelters are still often at capacity, advocates says. The city currently funds about 1,850 shelter beds. In downtown Seattle, King County funds another 150 shelter beds. Countywide, last year's one-night count found about 3,280 people sleeping in shelters and another 3,770 sleeping on streets and in cars or tents. The majority of those living unsheltered—2,813 people—were in Seattle.