Of the 16 people evicted from a homeless encampment on South Dearborn Street near I-5 today, half will go to another city-sanctioned encampment.
Of the 16 people evicted from a homeless encampment on South Dearborn Street near I-5 today, half will go to another city-sanctioned encampment. Alex Garland

The knock came around 8 a.m. Get out.

Sixteen residents of a formerly city-sanctioned homeless encampment near 10th Avenue and South Dearborn Street were quickly forced out of the camp this morning, with some of them headed for other encampments and others apparently headed for the streets.

Today's sweep has been expected since last month, when residents of the camp voted for a second time to sever ties with organizer Scott Morrow and his organization Nickelsville. That vote effectively voided the agreement that allowed the residents to camp on the piece of private property near I-5.

But residents and city staff disagree on how much advance notice and outreach residents were offered before today's sweep.

Polly Trout, a nonprofit organizer who has worked with the residents there, said they were told the sweep would happen Monday. The mayor's public safety adviser, Scott Lindsay, told me "Monday was never communicated as the specific day."

"For the entirety of this week," Lindsay said, "they were told they had to leave and had to leave right away."

Sharon Lee, the executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which previously helped oversee the camp, said outreach workers were visiting the camp, warning of the sweep, and offering other shelter "just about every day" for the last two weeks. "So this is not a surprise," Lee said.

Two residents of the camp told a different story.

Josh Elms
Josh Elms Alex Garland

Josh Elms moved to Seattle—and this encampment—just three days ago from Arkansas.

Elms said he had heard about the controversy going on within the camp, but had not been contacted by a case worker or learned about his options until today. He said he was given 30 minutes to leave. He plans to transfer to the new LIHI-run encampment at Othello.

"In a sea of chaos," Elms said, "they threw me a life preserver."

Gary D.
Gary D. Alex Garland

A man who gave his name as Gary D. said he'd been living in the encampment for about a year, most recently in one of its small shed-like structures known as "tiny houses." This morning, Gary sat with his belongings near the I-5 overpass while city staff cleared the camp. He said he wasn't given notice of the clearing until this morning. When I asked where he plans to go now, he shrugged.

"I'm done with encampments," he said. Gary said he was promised access to a case worker at the Dearborn site. "I stayed here. I kept hoping," he said. "That never happened."

When I visited the camp last month, other residents told me they'd had trouble accessing a case manager too. But Lee, the LIHI director, disputed that. She says a LIHI case manager visited the camp regularly to offer residents help accessing services and housing.

The city previously allowed the camp to operate under an agreement between the nonprofit Nickelsville, LIHI, the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, and the owner of the property. When residents cut ties with Nickelsville's Morrow, that agreement was effectively voided. The camp found another nonprofit, Patacara Community Services, willing to take over the nonprofit role, but they were unable to negotiate a new agreement with the property owner in time to stop the sweep. The property owner has not responded to my requests for comment, but sent the city a letter asking them to clear the encampment.

The controversy exposes flaws in the so-called "self-governance" model used in city-sanctioned encampments. Residents vote on certain decisions for the camp, but must maintain ties with a nonprofit to in order to maintain city approval. If they cut those ties, they may have trouble finding another nonprofit to take over. (Most of the city-sanctioned encampments are run by just three organizations: LIHI, Nickelsville, and the particularly resource-strapped Seattle Housing and Resource Effort, or SHARE, which recently lost county funding.) Even if they do find another nonprofit, the private property owner has no obligation to make a deal with that new nonprofit and can ask the city to clear the camp. Which means the camp's residents become newly homeless.

Supporters of the model say the oversight is necessary to keep camps organized and safe. Once the Dearborn camp cut ties with Nickelsville, Lee, from LIHI, said the code of conduct that had been in place in the camp was no longer being enforced and residents had drugs and weapons. Lee has cited safety as a reason to clear the camp. Residents in the camp dispute that characterization and say it was still safe.

"Occupy Camp Dearborn has us reminded again that while democracy may be the best system, individual judgement still matters," the nonprofit Nickelsville said in a statement about today's sweep. "Democracy is not an absolute guarantee of sound decisions."

After residents left the camp today, LIHI began clearing supplies and structures, which will be taken to other encampments. LIHI and Nickelsville staff will then clean the lot before handing it back over to the private property owner.

About 30 to 40 people were reportedly living in the encampment in recent weeks. Of the 16 who remained today, eight plan to go to the newly opened Othello encampment, two will go to shelters, and six will go to neither shelter nor another sanctioned encampment, according to Lindsay from the mayor's office.

"All in all, that's a good resolution," Lindsay said. "This is not a stable situation." Lindsay said the outreach and police presence involved in the clearing were "quite expensive," though he couldn't provide an exact cost.

This morning, police prevented media from entering the encampment or accessing the sidewalk in front of it while residents were being moved out, so the two mentioned above are the only ones I was able to speak with. It's unclear where the rest of those residents who declined shelter and encampments plan to go. However, if they're anywhere outside, they're at risk of another sweep. The city continues to clear unauthorized homeless encampments across the city.

When I asked Gary, who's been homeless off and on since 2001 and was unsure where he'd go tonight, what the city could do now to help him, he replied: "Stop this."

This post has been updated to reflect that the information about how many residents plan to go to other other encampments or shelters came from mayoral public safety adviser Scott Lindsay.