Armed with signs that read “Stop the Harrell Horror Show” and “Sweeps Kill,” about a dozen Stop The Sweeps protesters disrupted the Mayor’s Wednesday morning press conference, wherein he basically reiterated his Downtown Activation Plan. He struggled to ignore his detractors, breaking from his prepared remarks several times to offer clumsy support, or to mock and scold them.
While Harrell more or less dismissed the advocates, the long and contentious conversation about limiting sweeps may soon return to City Hall. That morning, a different group called the Services Not Sweeps Coalition proposed a ban on sweeps during extreme weather events and in the winter. If Harrell wants to “have a conversation” with anti-sweep advocates when he’s not trying to soak in the limelight, there’s his conversation. He did not respond to my request for comment.
wild how much 10 people can shake the Mayor pic.twitter.com/yzLBnfRjoq— Hannah Krieg (@hannahkrieg) June 28, 2023
Harrell’s Hissy Fit
Harrell made it about one minute into his conference before the small group started to shout, in a call and response format, “no housing, no sweeps.”
“I figured that was coming,” he said, standing in the Westlake Center, a popular location for protests. “I’ll speak over that.”
He chanted two rounds of “no sweeps” along with the protesters before saying that his administration does not sweep. Apparently, he does not count the more than 900 encampment removals he authorized in 2022, hundreds of which were conducted without notice.
He got a few more sentences out before he caved to the distraction and approached the protesters. He asked to have a “conversation,” but the advocates did not let up.
“We have tried having conversations, but he's been silent,” one Stop The Sweeps organizer told The Stranger. “But now that we are ruining his little party here he says he wants to talk? That's a lie.”
Harrell returned to his podium and said, “We’ve outnumbered them, at least.” His us-versus-them comment drew a strict boundary in his metaphorical #OneSeattle mantra. His crowd clapped for him. Five cops kept a close eye on the protesters during the event and two of them stood basically on top of the advocates.
Moments later, he snapped back into supportive mode and said that the chanting was “music” to his ears because it is “activation.”
Unable to block out the haters, Harrell mocked Stop The Sweeps a few more times. He shouted their chants back at them and bragged that his microphone made him–already the most powerful man in Seattle–louder than the advocates. The Harrell hype men tended to the Mayor’s insecurities with more applause.
Still bothered, he accused anti-sweep advocates of lying about him not leading with compassion.
“If compassion is raiding, displacing, and throwing away people's personal belongings, then I obviously need a different dictionary,” one protester told The Stranger. The City does not have enough shelter to remove encampments without pushing unhoused people from one corner to another. For reference, on the day of the press conference, the City’s HOPE team had six “enhanced” shelter beds, five of which were for men only. There were no available tiny shelters in the entire City that day.
Services Not Sweeps
Broadly, anti-sweeps advocates believe that the City should not take people from their homes, however makeshift, without giving them a better place to go. In an effort to chip away at the City’s ability to remove encampments, the newly formed Services Not Sweeps Coalition proposed a ban on sweeps in extreme weather events and in the winter.
The City already fought over the definition of “winter” while amending the winter eviction moratorium in 2020. They landed on the period between the first day of December to the first day of March. Services Not Sweeps Coalition did not describe the conditions that should qualify as extreme weather, but the King County Regional Homelessness Authority has opened extreme weather shelters for temperatures below 30 degrees or above 80 and in instances of poor air quality. In 2022, the authority opened these shelters more than 50 times.
Obviously the City should get as many people as possible inside during those extreme weather events, but a sweep without shelter referrals–which describes so many of the sweeps happening in our city right now–does nothing but destabilize unhoused people.
“Too many of my friends have died over the last decade from hypothermia after being swept from their previously safe locations. This City does not have shelter capacity to hold each and every person currently living outdoors, and we cannot in good conscience continue sweeps during severe weather knowing that we are taking away a person's best chance of survival,” said Dee Powers, the program coordinator at Be:Seattle.
The hope is that if the City stops siccing the Parks Department on encampments, then they could spend more money and energy providing services such as trash collection and hygiene stations, and building more non-congregate shelter and affordable housing.
Does the Proposal Have a Shot?
There’s no official draft legislation to read, so council members are not inclined to pick a side on this issue.
Council Member Andrew Lewis also seemed open to hearing the advocates out about their proposed ban. However, he expressed frustration about focusing on how to sweep instead of providing services to sanctioned encampments and building more shelter and housing. He must not have read the press release, because the coalition wants to limit sweeps to focus on those things exactly.
Council Member Dan Strauss, a pariah to many anti-sweeps advocates, said “all ideas are good,” but he would have to read the draft first. He is especially concerned about defining a sweep. To him, a removal becomes a sweep when the City removes people without shelter referrals or takes someone’s belongings without asking.
The advocates have not worked out an exact definition of a sweep, but they more or less agree with the ACLU’s definition: “the forced disbanding of encampments on public property and the removal of both unhoused people and their property from that area.”
Defining a sweep will likely be the central struggle for the council. Even if the coalition stakes out their starting position as the ACLU’s definition, then council members will likely propose carve-outs—some for reasonable things like when a tent is in the middle of the road, and some that try to undermine the legislation altogether.
It is unclear if Harrell will take the proposal seriously, given the fact that he denies that the City sweeps at all. Besides, in a final dig at the advocates, he fell back on his life-long Seattleite schtick, suggesting that they do not know what is best for the city because they did not grow up with him. But that’s hardly their fault–all of them are at least 30 years younger than him.