“It’s beginning,” Ted* said, climbing into the RV he shares with his partner, Diane*. He smirked and lifted his brows in that nudge-nudge, wink-wink sort of way, like he just told Diane an old inside joke.
Diane didn’t even bother to look up. She absently corralled her 8-month-old kittens, Rocky and Chloe, so they wouldn’t run out the open door. If it was an inside joke, it didn’t seem all that funny to her.
“They’re putting the signs up,” Diane said.
It wasn’t a question. She knew without looking outside that the City was propping up the no-parking signs to enforce the 72-hour rule, which only allows parking in one spot for three days at a time.
A little more than a week prior, an outreach worker warned Diane that on the second Tuesday of the month, the City planned to sweep her and her community of about 15 to 20 residents who lived in RVs and tents along Northwest Ballard Way. Diane suspected the sweep served as the City’s response to a break-in at the fast-casual chicken shop that once welcomed the RV residents to stay on the road next to it.
She said, “It wasn’t even our guys.” And even if it was, the outreach worker pointed out, in no other neighborhood would every resident get evicted for one of their neighbor’s wrongdoings. Unhoused people get punished as a collective. By now, Ted and Diane are used to it.
“It’s just another day,” Diane said of the looming sweep.
According to Ted, the same community (more or less) has stuck together through four or five sweeps just this year. He struggled to remember in what order the City has pushed them from location to location. (“Was it the Goodwill and then Fred Meyer? Or maybe the boat launch first?”) It’s not uncommon: As of September, the City claims to have swept 724 tents and 273 RVs this year, even though the Mayor has insisted that his administration does not sweep, but rather houses those living outside.
Diane said they’re running out of places to go. Until the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) opens RV safe lots, the City has nothing to offer RV residents.
On Tuesday, the residents of Northwest Ballard Way experienced what is "just another day" for unhoused people and what the Mayor has insisted on not calling a sweep.
At 8:30 am a lone police cruiser sat parked in the lot across from the site. By 8:50 am, the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) presence grew to about a dozen, and even more Parks and Recreation employees showed up. By contrast, unhoused people and sweep support advocates only saw one member of the HOPE team, meaning the City sent about 10 times as many cops as City employees who could refer people to shelter.
Three tiny shelters
Mary*, one of the few neighbors who lives in a tent, scrambled to pack up her belongings. She folded her blankets haphazardly into black garbage bags provided by civilian sweep support.
Mary said she wished she had more time—or at least a chance to pack without the cops breathing down her neck.
“The police are supposed to serve and protect, not intimidate and bully,” Mary said.
One of the cops argued that the residents had plenty of time to pack in advance because the City gave the encampment a five days notice. However, Mary said she usually sticks around until the morning of the sweep, hoping to get a shelter referral.
Although City outreach visited the site more and more as the sweep approached, one outreach worker said day-of-the-sweep residents always get priority for shelter referrals, making it difficult—or damn near impossible—to move people inside before the City kicks them out. So Mary waited. Even on the day Mary thought would be her best shot, a HOPE team member said there were only three tiny shelters available, but plenty of less desirable “enhanced shelter” options.
Because so many RV residents do not want to leave their homes for a smaller tiny shelter under the supervision of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), Mary got lucky and got a referral to a tiny shelter village in South Lake Union.
“This is her home”
Almost all of the six remaining RVs managed to get off the site before the cops or Parks and Rec intervened. A small Honda jump-started three of the vehicles and one resident hooked up a fourth RV to pull it along to a new, likely nearby, location. Civilian sweep support rented a tow truck and pulled a fifth RV off-site. That meant only one RV remained.
Earlier that morning, a cop said they would “start to enforce” the sweep at 9:30 am. But if someone’s actively packing, the cop said they wouldn’t “drag” anyone away.
Still, at 9:14 am, a big, red Dick’s Highline tow truck rolled up in front of a smaller camper, preparing to tow and impound the RV. If impounded, the City typically brings RVs to Lincoln Towing’s North Seattle storage lot where the owner will have to cough up potentially hundreds of dollars to get it back. If the owner doesn’t claim the vehicle within 21 days, the RV will go up for auction. According to KOMO, such an RV could sell for as little as $1 to $50.
The owner of the vehicle was not home at the time, but sweep support called her and found out she would be back shortly. The vehicle ran just fine—if the owner had a little more time, she could have driven away with her home and all of her belongings.
Sweep support tried to buy her that time. Two organizers stood in front of the home in an effort to prevent the tow truck from impounding the vehicle, at least temporarily. The organizers tried to explain that the owner would be back soon, but it didn’t appear to land with the cops.
An officer told the organizers they needed to move, otherwise, he and the several other cops surrounding him would arrest them.
“This is her home,” one organizer said emphatically, trying to reason with the officer.
“You’re getting escorted off the site right now,” he said, reaching behind the organizer’s back to move her out of the way.
The second organizer pulled the first away and told the cop not to touch them. The cop continued to push them away from the vehicle. When he stopped touching the organizers, several officers attempted to march them to the sidewalk on the other side of the street.
A spokesperson from SPD said, "...officers followed policy, law, and were respectful."
The organizers stood their ground in front of Mary's tent. Again, sweep support implored the cops to wait for the resident to return before towing the RV away. Despite their efforts, the tow company had already begun hooking the RV up to the truck at around 9:25 am.
“Once you’re homeless, you’re worthless,” one resident said after the altercation.
It took the City about two or three hours to push all the residents to another street and impound one of their homes. The HOPE team worker said she offered everyone shelter, none of which suited the needs of RV residents, so Mary was the only taker.
One outreach worker, who has been to more sweeps than she can count, said that tension between the City and those it fails to house are at boiling point. Just about every time the City issues a sweep notice, someone suggests resisting or fighting back. Usually, the idea gets waved off because they don’t have the numbers to stand up for themselves, the outreach worker said.
But Diane said it's only a matter of time.
“The City can only push us around for so long until it pushes us together,” she said. “People are going to retaliate. It’s going to be a war between the homeless and the Mayor or whoever the hell else is making this worse.”
Despite her prediction, Diane’s not interested in putting up a fight just yet. Like she said, “It’s just another day.”
*These sources requested aliases because of their frequent interactions with police and other City employees.