In the debate over how best to address Seattle's homelessness crisis, one three-word argument has recently dominated public comment periods and protests at City Hall: "Stop the sweeps!"
It's a simple phrase, which makes it valuable as a political organizing tool. It tugs at the heartstrings by suggesting widespread, callous evictions of homeless individuals in this city. It angers those who rightly believe that homeless people need access to shelter and services—not police chasing them around.
But it turns out the truth, as shown in this long and fascinating report on how and when Seattle's homeless encampment are cleared, doesn't actually support the notion that Seattle's current actions toward homeless encampments are capricious and cruel.
As Times reporter Vianna Davila explains, after a number of admittedly bad and ineffective actions toward residents of Seattle encampments last year, the city changed course and created a "Navigation Team"—a group of "police officers and outreach workers" who are "tasked with both trying to coax homeless campers into shelters and removing encampments the city has deemed unsafe."
That dual role leaves the team caught between residents and business owners who want the city to shut down the camps, and impassioned activists — including some Seattle City Council members — who demand an end to camp removals they’ve derisively branded “sweeps.”
In five visits in recent weeks, the team exhibited a nuanced approach to working with camp residents.
Nuanced approaches don't fit easily on placards, are hard to shout about, and don't help a lot with party building.
But sometimes they do break through as being great ideas, as with Seattle's much-heralded LEAD program (profiled in a 2016 PBS special here)—which you've no doubt already heard about if you travel in righteous political circles in Seattle. LEAD takes a harm-reduction approach to low-level drug crimes by meeting Seattle addicts where they're at and relentlessly offering them housing, treatment, and other services that can keep them from cycling in and out of the criminal justice system. Well, in broad strokes, the "Navigation Team" approach to homelessness is a lot like the LEAD approach to drug crimes. From the Times story:
Contrary to what many citizens hope happens with their complaints [about encampments], the Navigation Team often tries to keep the camps open, advising residents how to keep the area clean and safe and how they can get other services, said Drake-Ericson. That aspect of the team’s work contradicts the narrative, often cited by council members like Kshama Sawant and “Stop The Sweeps” activists, that the team is aggressively sweeping the city...
The Navigation Team is based on police officers and human-services staff working together in what [Scott Lindsay, former public-safety adviser in the Murray administration], who created the team, believes is a necessary carrot-and-stick approach. The team orchestrates site cleanups, but only if there’s shelter available for everyone in the camps.
One major problem: the city doesn't have enough low-barrier shelter beds for people in camps to move to, though it's working to add them quickly. Another major problem: Seattle's "Navigation Team" is small and grossly underfunded compared to similar teams in San Francisco.
And regarding that last problem, guess what? Amid the highly polarized "Stop the sweeps!" fights in City Hall during the recent budget season, as council members were shouted at for not unilaterally halting all efforts to move people out of encampments, funding to expand the Navigation Team got lost.
Full disclosure, I watched those debates unfold from the seventh floor of City Hall. But you don't need to take my word on the funding issue. Here's Davila, again, in her Times report:
All agree the Navigation Team is too small given the scope of the region’s homelessness problem. Lindsay said the intention has always been to double its size, but Seattle’s 2018 budget did not add a second team, as former Mayor Tim Burgess’ budget had proposed.
Read the Times piece. The question of how Seattle came to underfund a humane and progressive intervention in the name of "stopping the sweeps" is not the only important issue it raises.
It also shows that the "Navigation Team" isn't any sort of silver bullet solution to our complex homelessness crisis, and that a lot more needs to be done on many fronts.
All those words don't fit nicely on a placard. But the lessons of this Times story are definitely worth knowing.
(And once you're done reading today's Project Homelessness report, read the rest of the reports in the project archive. It's a great use of limited local journalism resources to help inform a hugely important debate.)