Many of the people living in City Hall Park were placed in a variety of shelter settings, including hotels and tiny shelters.
Many of the people living in City Hall Park were placed in a variety of shelter settings, including hotels and tiny shelters. Andrew Engelson

The homeless encampment at City Hall Park was not simply a place where people without shelter tried to get a night’s sleep. It was a symbolic battleground over Seattle's approach to its homeless crisis. So when the city, county, and various outreach providers made the move to close the park, they acted carefully.

According to Kamaria Hightower, a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan's office, over the past six weeks outreach workers with JustCARE, an intensive services-centered approach facilitated by a coalition of service providers, sought to offer everyone camped there some form of shelter before the city moved in on Aug 13.

Between August 5 and August 13, the mayor’s office says at least 78 people were placed in a variety of shelter settings, including hotel rooms at the Executive Hotel Pacific (which the city leases for this purpose), tiny shelters, and enhanced shelters.

“This is not a sweep. This is not a removal. This is not a clearing,” the Public Defender Association (which manages JustCARE) said in a press release last week. “This is the opposite: taking the time needed to make meaningful offers of shelter and support to people based on their actual needs and situation, while respecting individual self-determination.”

The mayor’s office desperately wants to be seen taking steps to “clean up” homeless encampments, but is also keenly aware of the negative optics of previous sweeps by the Seattle Police Department’s Navigation Team. That approach has been replaced by the city’s HOPE Team, which works with service providers such as DESC and Chief Seattle Club alongside city agencies responsible for the property in question to offer shelter alternatives to as many people as possible.

Some mutual aid organizations, however, wonder if the current actions are just sweeps dressed up in prettier clothing. “In general, while we appreciate the work that the City states they have been doing and acknowledge it,” said Jonathan Hemphill of the Lived Experience Coalition, “it clearly demonstrates that there is a lot of work to do to connect folks to supportive, stable housing if there are still sweeps occurring — which we do not support in any capacity.”

However, it’s hard to argue that the new approach isn’t a serious course correction focused on finding new options for those sleeping outside. Many service providers such as Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) are on board. Sharon Lee, LIHI’s executive director, says that during the recent efforts at City Hall Park, her organization helped find 22 people tiny shelters and placed six people at the Executive Hotel Pacific. “Days ahead of the sweep, we put multiple people in tiny houses and hotel rooms,” Lee says.

The response to City Hall Park illustrates that in the coming months, the city, county, and the new King County Regional Homeless Authority may be at odds over how to approach the crisis, in which an estimated 12,000 people are without shelter.

Councilmember Andrew Lewis, Chair of the Select Committee on Homelessness Strategies and Investments, stands solidly behind JustCARE, touting research showing it can be an effective approach.

But with intensive wraparound services and leased hotels, JustCARE’s price tag of around $50,000 per client is relatively hefty. Still, Lewis is a booster. This approach, he says, "centers dignity and overcomes those old tropes of ‘these people don’t want help, these people are just addicts, why are we spending all these resources on them?’"

Though the Durkan administration is now proudly touting JustCARE, it was skeptical of the approach at first, sometimes citing a higher cost estimate of $100,000 per client. Similarly, Durkan’s Human Services Department (HSD) seemed to be dragging its feet on constructing new tiny shelter villages this year.

In a recent meeting of the City Council’s committee on homelessness, Councilmembers Dan Strauss and Teresa Mosqueda took HSD to task for not moving more quickly on three new tiny shelter villages that were funded in the 2021 budget. Strauss was critical of the pace and size of HSD’s efforts, noting that with $44 million in city, state, and federal funds, HSD was only predicting an increase of about 400 beds or units by the end of the year. “We need 4,000 new units, not 400,” Strauss lamented in a July 28 meeting.

Breaking ground on Rosies Tiny House Village in the U District.
Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen and LIHI's Sharon Lee breaking ground on Rosie's Tiny House Village in the U District. Low Income Housing Institute

The three expanded tiny shelter villages (34 new units at the existing Interbay Village, plus 50 units at the new Friendship Heights site in North Seattle, and 36 at Rosie’s Tiny House Village in the U District) are now all in the works and should be completed by October, says Will Lemke, a spokesperson for HSD. “Standing these programs up takes time given the land-use complexities, legislation requirements, site prep, and unforeseen project delays... we believe these projects are on track for a fall opening and HSD staff is working hard to make that happen.”

“We are concerned about the very slow pace of opening tiny house villages” says Sharon Lee of LIHI, however, noting that the relatively low cost (about $400,000 to $600,000 to build a 40-unit village and $800,000 annually to operate) makes it an attractive option. LIHI says tiny houses are also extremely effective: in 2019, they claim, 41% of tiny shelter residents later found permanent or transitional housing.

What’s clear from the HOPE team’s latest mid-year report is that the city is moving away from old-style congregate shelters with mats on the floor and toward enhanced shelters, hotel rooms, and tiny homes.

Not everyone is a huge fan of tiny houses, however. King County Regional Homeless Authority (KCRHA) executive director Marc Dones is skeptical of any one magic-bullet solution, whether it’s JustCARE or tiny homes. “We have to remember, our mission is to house people,” Dones said in a phone interview. “We need to look at more housing styles and solutions... I’m really sick of these discussions over which approach to shelter is best. We have to get people on a path to permanent housing, and my concern is that the public is seeing tiny homes as a long-term solution.”

Meanwhile, as HSD shifts its work over to KCRHA in January of next year, the debate will likely heat up even more. On top of that, the city’s two hotel leases for rapid rehousing at the Executive Hotel Pacific and King’s Inn expire in February. Oh, and the city will vote on the controversial (and not especially compassionate) “Compassion Seattle” charter amendment on homelessness and sweeps in November. Seattle’s approach to a tragic crisis might get even muddier before it becomes clear.