Homelessness is a large and complex issue. There are many factors contributing to the increase of people living without shelter or those who are at-risk of becoming homeless: Seattle’s skyrocketing rents, the retreat of federal funding for subsidized housing, structural inequalities rooted in systemic racial injustice, a woefully inadequate mental health system, and an opioid epidemic. Seattle is not alone. Many cities along the West Coast are struggling to address this humanitarian emergency as well.
The City is employing several strategies to address the crisis, including creating more affordable homes and temporary safer living spaces, overhauling our system of homelessness services and support, and increasing outreach and assistance to those sleeping outdoors, in abandoned buildings, or in vehicles. None of these strategies will succeed alone. Each can be refined, improved and expanded.
While these efforts continue, the City has a responsibility to address the public health and safety issues that accompany many of the unauthorized encampments around Seattle, which impact the individuals living in the camps and the surrounding community. These efforts are guided by rules designed to balance providing services and alternative living spaces to people with the health and safety benefits of removing unmanaged encampments. In 2017, the City improved these rules, enhanced outreach, and opened two new low-barrier shelters and three new managed encampments. As of Oct. 10, the City has cleaned 143 encampments this year. Through one-on-one engagement, hundreds of individuals living in encampments have accepted referrals to safer living spaces, including people who were required to leave when an encampment was cleaned up, and those who took advantage of City outreach-only efforts.
Why: Issues that prompt encampment cleanups
Without access to water, sanitation services, trash services and means for proper food storage, these camps put their already vulnerable residents at risk for illness and the city at risk for a disease outbreak. As recently advised by Public Health – Seattle & King County, an ongoing hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego highlights the sanitation and hygiene concerns. As of the past weekend, San Diego reported 18 individuals dead, 386 hospitalized and at least 578 individuals. The conditions in San Diego’s unmanaged encampments encouraged the spread this disease, which can be prevented by regular hand washing and sanitary toilets.
Despite the availability of regularly serviced dumpsters and porta-potties onsite, the encampment known as the Field experienced a proliferation of trash, human waste and rats, which was a primary reason for the camp’s closure and led a Public Health official to declare: “This is about the worst I’ve seen in Seattle. It’s inhumane to allow people to live here.” It is virtually impossible to remediate these extreme conditions without moving campers out of the location. Since March 2017, the City has collected and disposed of nearly 3,100 tons (6.2 million pounds) of garbage and debris from active and closed unmanaged encampments around the city.
Additionally, unsafe structures, open flames and criminal activity create their own hazards. An RV fire last April illustrated the dangers of camping under low bridge structures to both the inhabitants and the City’s essential infrastructure. In many encampments, residents are using flammable materials, like pallets and bedding, and open flames for cooking or as a heat source. The addition of elements like vehicles in poor condition and a cramped space, create real fire risks. Further, while most unsheltered people do not engage in criminal activity, large unmanaged encampments tend to attract negative behavior. Also in April, number of violent crimes, as well as a Seattle Police Department seizure of a cache of handguns and rifles, preceded the cleanup of large encampments along Dearborn Street and Rainier Avenue. In August, a man was killed at a large unmanaged encampment in SODO, and another person has been charged with his murder.
When: Identifying, assessing and prioritizing encampments for cleanup
The City is notified of encampments from members of the public, through calls to the Customer Service Bureau (CSB), reports filed using the City’s online Service Request Form and the Find It, Fix It mobile app, and from City staff out in the field who encounter encampments on City-owned property. City field coordinators visit reported sites to assess and document the situation. Upon inspection, staff may find no evidence of an encampment, illegal dumping (which is then referred to Seattle Public Utilities’ Illegal Dumping program for remediation), an abandoned encampment or an active encampment. For active encampments, field coordinators document the site characteristics (e.g., park, sidewalk, roadway, steep slope, fire hazards, etc.) and observed health conditions (e.g., garbage, human waste, rodents, falling trees or limbs, hazardous materials, weapons, needles, etc.).
With an estimated 400 unauthorized encampments in Seattle, the City focuses its limited resources on closing encampments that pose the greatest risks to the health and safety of both unsheltered and housed residents. Encampments that manage waste, are not involved in criminal or violent behavior, and do not pose imminent objective safety risks are a lower priority. In many cases, the City helps encampments to manage waste, and organizes regular pickup of bagged trash (see a summary of City programs launched to target specific issues that have increased due to both the homelessness crisis and the growing heroin epidemic).
Since January 2017, the City of Seattle has received more than 4,300 complaints about unmanaged encampments/illegal camping. After aggregating duplicate complaints, we have identified more than 600 reported locations (as noted above, reported locations are not necessarily active encampments, but upon inspection may be found to be misreported, illegal dumping or an abandoned encampment). As of Oct. 10, the City has removed 143 encampments in 2017; site assessments are posted on our website.
How: Humanitarian outreach
Earlier this year, the City adopted new rules that guide all City interactions with people living in unauthorized encampments. In all but the most hazardous situations, the new rules require the City to offer available alternative shelter to all those who are asked to relocate, assistance with moving, storing and retrieving their possessions, and a minimum of 72-hours’ notice that an encampment is to be removed. Even when the most hazardous situations exist, the City offers storage and stores all items that are safe to collect.
These efforts are led by the City’s Navigation Team, comprised of specially-trained Seattle police officers, REACH outreach workers, and field coordinators who work one-on-one with individuals to develop personal plans to get the help they need. The team visits encampments around the city, whether the camp is scheduled for cleanup or not (see Q13 Fox News’ coverage of Navigation Team outreach).
When an encampment is scheduled for removal, the team offers outreach in advance and on the day of the cleanup. As noted above, our rules require offers of alternative spaces, which means the City will not schedule an encampment for cleanup if there are not spaces to refer people to that are immediately available. The team also will transport people and their belongings (or store their belongings) to the places where they are referred.
Where: Increasing temporary shelter alternatives
This year, the City also created new shelter capacity for those who are asked to leave unsafe encampments, which has helped the Navigation Team meet the requirement to offer alternative shelter at the time of an encampment removal. The Navigation Center provides 75 beds to people who have been chronically homeless and need intensive services before they can succeed in permanent housing. Compass Housing Alliance has opened a new, 100-bed, 24/7 shelter that also serves the homeless individuals with the greatest challenges to moving off the streets. Both shelters accept people with pets, partners and possessions – which often are the barriers that prevent unsheltered people from coming inside.
Additionally, the City partners with the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), SHARE/WHEEL, and Nickelsville to operate six sanctioned encampments, an innovative approach that combines self-management with professional case management. An evaluation of the first three sanctioned encampments has demonstrated that sanctioned encampments are working to help people stabilize and move on to more permanent housing.