In a private group on Facebook, a Ballard business organization is making a pitch to business owners in the neighborhood: Let's crowdsource outrage to get rid of homeless encampments.
A post in the group called Ballard Business Owners, written by Ballard Alliance executive director Mike Stewart, asks "business owners and residents in Ballard" to join an email list. When "an illegal encampment is identified," the Ballard Alliance will send out a description and photo of the encampment to members of the list, who are encouraged to file a report with the City of Seattle's Find It, Fix It app. The idea, basically, is to flood the city with complaints so they'll shut down areas where the homeless congregate. The Ballard Alliance did not post the same call on its public Facebook page.
The Ballard Alliance is a neighborhood chamber of commerce funded in part by the Ballard Improvement Area. (Business improvement areas are city-sanctioned funds that collect money from landowners in the designated area for things like security or street improvements.)
Find It, Fix It is an app you can use for reporting potholes, graffiti, damaged street signs, that kind of stuff. The city also invites you to use it to report human beings living outside.
Business groups appear to think more complaints to the app will translate to more action.
"We understand from SPD as well as the City's Navigation Team that these reports are reviewed on a daily basis and that, the more complaints that are received about a particular issue, the better the response from the City," wrote Stewart in the Facebook group.
The city claims that's not true.
“If [an encampment] is getting a lot of attention from the media or community, that doesn’t necessarily mean the encampment is addressed differently than any other encampment... It’s all very much about what we see on the ground," said Will Lemke, a spokesperson for the city's homelessness response.
When city officials receive a report of an illegal homeless encampment, they combine complaints about said encampment and add it to their internal tracking system. City staff then visit the site to determine whether people are still there and whether they should be removed, Lemke said. When deciding which camps to remove, city officials say they prioritize those that pose a health or safety hazard, not the number of complaints. The city considers factors like criminal activity beyond drug use, health hazards, difficulty for emergency services accessing the site, environmentally critical areas, and hazards like nearby moving vehicles, according to Lemke.
Whether public complaints factor in the city's decision-making process when it comes to encampment sweeps is the source of much debate. City officials consistently say environmental, safety and health concerns, not public complaints, drive their sweeps policy. They say that if encampments do not pose immediate risks, outreach workers offered service to the people living there instead of immediately removing them. Some advocates for people experiencing homelessness dispute that the city follows its own protocols.
Last month, several city council members attempted to stop most encampment removals but failed to win votes from a majority of their colleagues. At the time, then-mayor Tim Burgess and several department heads issued a lengthy defense of the sweeps. They said the city had received about 460 complaints about encampments each month or about double the complaints from last year. They also said city workers had removed 6 million pounds of trash and human waste from encampments.
Stewart wrote in the Facebook post that another staffer at the Ballard Alliance was "monitoring the situation, taking photos and reporting on a near daily basis."
At last count, nearly 12,000 people in King County were experiencing homelessness, about 8,500 of them in Seattle. Countywide, a little more than half of people experiencing homelessness live in shelters. The rest live on the streets or in vehicles, abandoned buildings, and tents. A city survey released in March found that 93 percent of people said they would move inside if housing was available.
The Ballard Alliance has not responded to a request for comment. I'll update this post if I hear back. UPDATE: Stewart says the reports are meant to to "help ensure the Navigation Team is aware of the folks in need within our Ballard community and, ultimately, make a connection and offer services." (The Navigation Team is made of outreach workers and police officers.) He said the Ballard Alliance also works with REACH and the Millionair Club, programs that offer jobs and outreach to people experiencing homelessness. "The Navigation Team has told us consistently that the best way to connect those living in unsanctioned encampments to Navigation Team services is by using the Find It Fix It app," Stewart said.