The scene at an encampment sweep in March. The city has conducted more than 1,000 sweeps since November 2015, according to the ACLU.
The scene at an encampment sweep in March. The city has conducted more than 1,000 sweeps since November 2015, according to the ACLU. HG

A coalition of Seattle advocates launched a new campaign Saturday to stop the city's sweeps of homeless encampments and increase the city's supply of affordable housing.

"Sweeps do not help people live. Sweeps help people die," said Anitra Freeman from the organization WHEEL, which hosts regular vigils for homeless people who've died, at Saturday's Housing for All kickoff. So far this year, 57 homeless people have died in Seattle, according to WHEEL.

Branding the effort "Housing for All," groups including Transit Riders Union, Real Change, Nickelsville, Columbia Legal Services, the Neighborhood Action Coalition, Socialist Alternative, and the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America have signed on. Their platform calls on the city to build 24,000 units of housing that's affordable for people making up to 30 percent of area median income (about $20,000 a year for an individual) in the next decade. That's four times as much as the city's current goal of 6,000 units in the next decade for people making 60 percent of area median income ($40,000 a year for an individual) or less.

The coalition also demands the city limit its sweeps of homeless encampments to only cases in which a camp is "irremediably unsafe or in conflict with other public uses of the site" and, in those cases, offer people an alternative location. For people living in cars or RVs, the city should offer outreach and safe parking lots and avoid ticketing and towing, the group says.

It's not the first time advocates have tried to put a stop to the city's clearings of encampments, but it could have a better shot than previous efforts. Last year, Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien pushed legislation to reduce encampment sweeps to only those that posed health and safety risks. But when the council was overwhelmed with opposition, it tabled the legislation. At council meetings during the time, opposition voices railing about the possibility of homeless people sleeping in their neighborhood parks heavily outnumbered people speaking in support. This year, O'Brien is advocating for a diversion program to help people living in vehicles avoid tickets and towing. He says a group organizing in support of policies like that is "really important."

In an interview, O'Brien said he isn't yet sure whether he will sponsor new legislation about sweeps, but said he would "partner with [the coalition] in any way I can." Building 24,000 units in the next decade will be difficult without state or federal money, O'Brien said. "But we should be pushed to try to build that many units of affordable housing. We need them."

As Seattle has seen increasing homelessness in recent years, the city and state have faced criticism over its chaotic and disorganized approach to forcing homeless campers to move along and trashing their stuff in the process. In response, the city has paired cops and social workers to do outreach at encampments before they're swept. City officials including Mayor Ed Murray take issue with the word "sweeps" and say they offer people living outside ample social services.

But some advocates and people living outside say the city's homelessness policy is still failing. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is currently suing the city over the sweeps. In recently filed court documents, the ACLU cited cases in which people swept lost IDs and family photos during sweeps. The loss of belongings made them unable to work.. One person "fell into a diabetic coma after [workers at a sweep] destroyed his insulin." Another relapsed after losing his methadone. And just like in tents, people living in their cars or RVs can lose everything if their vehicle is towed.

Having your vehicle impounded is “not just a setback, it can be devastating," said Rebecca Massey, who lives at Camp Second Chance and previously slept in her car.

While the city has in recent years increased shelter options, including opening a 24-hour navigation center that allows people with substance abuse to enter, thousands of people still live outside and in vehicles. A January count found about 8,500 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle, 3,800 of them living unsheltered. A 2016 city survey of people experiencing homelessness found that 37 percent of respondents said they don't use shelters because they're too crowded and 30 percent because they have bugs.

Harold Odom says his unsanctioned encampment was swept, which led him to his current spot at a city-supervised encampment in Georgetown. Recently, he went back to his old encampment. "So many people were still there," he said. "Over 20 of the old timers were still there" and only three had left "in spite of this [being] a targeted sweep area.”

"Homelessness is not just people chilling outside in a tent," Odom said. "There are people dying—men, women, and children. Remember that. Without shelters, people die.”

The Transit Riders Union, Nickelsville, and other members of this new coalition were also behind the recently passed city income tax. But "this is going to be harder than taxing the rich," Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, told the crowd Saturday.

"There is in our city a small but vocal minority who believe that the problem is not homelessness, but homeless people," Wilson said. "They believe that the city needs to be tougher on homeless people because of course the people living in cars are having a grand old time and people sleeping under freeways are enjoying the outdoor, rent-free life."

"And there’s a larger part of the population that is not filled with hate, as these people are, but that has been deeply misinformed and misled about the causes of homelessness and what should be done about it," Wilson added. "And there is yet another part that is sympathetic but disengaged. We cannot make the change that is needed unless we reach these people."