Photo depicting anti-sweep protest signs hanging off a railing in a downtown parking lot.

Councilmember’s Homelessness Plan Could Include 10 New Mass Encampment Sites

by Erica C. Barnett

(This article originally appeared in PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

As part of an effort to substantially reduce the number of unsheltered people living in downtown Seattle before summer, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis is working on a plan to relocate as many as 600 people into sanctioned encampments around the city, potentially including South Seattle. 

In an email sent last week to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s director of strategic initiatives Tim Burgess, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, lobbyist Ryan Bayne, and former City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, plus aides for Lewis and Harrell, Lewis laid out “a short-term displacement plan for visible pre-Memorial Day progress” that would involve removing and relocating unsheltered people from downtown Seattle into as many as 10 fenced-off encampments elsewhere in the city.

These encampments, which might be located on property owned by the City, Sound Transit, local churches, and the Port, would include case management (along with toilets, food, and showers) and could be up and running in as little as four weeks, Lewis said in his email. After people are relocated, Lewis continued, the tents could gradually be replaced by pallet shelters or tiny houses, with the goal of moving everyone rapidly from encampments to housing, such as the Health Through Housing hotels King County is working to open, within a year to 18 months.

“The strategy I am proposing here is to make a practical acceptance that more permanent housing and sheltering options likely won’t be available until the fall,” Lewis wrote. (Emphasis in original.) “THE WAITING ROOM WILL EITHER BE UNSANCTIONED ENCAMPMENTS OR SOME INTERIM STRATEGY LIKE THIS. That is the choice we face.”

Why Memorial Day? According to Lewis’ email, visible homelessness always spikes during the summer. “If we still don’t have a policy to prevent unsanctioned encampments from putting down roots before Memorial Day, they will grow and make the problem even more difficult to mitigate.”

The proposal to move most of the homeless people downtown into sanctioned encampments in the span of a little more than three months comes in the context of an announcement last week that a group of private foundations and local corporations will donate $10 million to help kick-start a plan to move about 1,000 people living unsheltered downtown into shelter or housing elsewhere. That plan has five phases, culminating in a “hold steady” phase once most encampments are removed from downtown streets. The proposal to relocate unsheltered people from tents on the sidewalk to tents in sanctioned camps suggests one way the City might achieve its goal of an encampment-free downtown.

“It’s clear the [Harrell] administration has a policy where they do not want to have encampments in the downtown business district,” Lewis told PubliCola Monday, Feb. 21. “It’s the prerogative of the executive to do those removals, and we need something to fill that gap.”

Marc Dones, the head of the regional homelessness authority, said Tuesday, Feb. 22, that the authority had nothing to do with the encampment proposal and that they had only heard about it through a forwarded email last week. Dones said they had asked Harrell’s office for more information about the proposal.

In his email, Lewis said removing encampments would be a necessary part of downtown recovery after two years of COVID. “The summer has to be the summer of recovery,” Lewis wrote. “It has to show people returning to work, tourists, and the local media that Seattle is capable of swiftly and compassionately managing our homelessness crisis. It has to encourage more firms to not only return to work but new ones to come in and set up shop. It has to demonstrate that we are the one West Coast major city capable of figuring out how to make visible progress on homelessness.”

Lewis told PubliCola he doesn’t consider the encampment idea a “perfect” or even a permanent solution to unsheltered homelessness downtown. “One of the things [outreach provider] REACH says all the time is ‘Give us something better’ [to offer unsheltered people], and this would be something better. Not something perfect and not something great, but something we could work with and improve over time.” REACH director Chloe Gale said she was unaware of the proposal on Monday.

“If it were up to me and I could wave a magic wand, we’d do a bunch of tiny house villages,” Lewis added and pointed to Nickelsville as an example of an encampment that eventually evolved into a tiny house village. “All of our tiny house villages started out as sanctioned encampments,” Lewis said.

Bagshaw, who recently returned to Seattle after a fellowship through Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, pointed to the recent removal of a longstanding encampment in Boston as an example Seattle should try to emulate. People living in the encampment, known as “Mass. and Cass,” were offered shelter, including some rooms in a local hotel, reunited with family, or simply told to leave, according to local media reports.

“They offered them two or three options and said, ‘We’re going to give you a supported hotel room or a supported apartment, but “no” is not an option,’” said Bagshaw, who lives downtown and has no formal position at the City. “They said, ‘We’re trying to live in a civilized space for everybody, and it’s not okay for you to pitch a tent wherever you want and however you want and to steal to support your habit. You’re not going to be able to stay here, and we’re going to give you 72 hours to figure it out.”

Both Lewis and Bagshaw pointed to JustCARE — a service-rich program that provides temporary housing and case management for people involved in the criminal legal system — as an example of the kind of approach that works for people who have many barriers to housing, including substance use, outstanding warrants, and long-term homelessness. “JustCARE is what we need, but we can’t wait until JustCARE has 600 units,” Bagshaw said.

In theory, people who need extensive services could be channeled into JustCARE over time. In practice, funding for JustCARE expires at the end of June, and the program is no longer taking new clients beyond the 230 it currently serves.

In his email, Lewis estimated that the encampments would cost between $800,000 and $1.2 million a year to operate, for a total of $8 million to $12 million a year, not counting capital costs. “The hardest part will be case management and services. But even there, I don’t know how daunting the numbers truly are,” Lewis wrote. “If we assume a ratio of one case manager to every 20 campers, and a maximum capacity of 600 people, the whole operation requires 30 case managers organized across our entire spectrum of providers. We should be able to manage it with a ramp up of several weeks.”

Public Defender Association codirector Lisa Daugaard, whose organization is one of the partners in JustCARE, said homeless service providers have already been “crushed by a combination of COVID impacts, the workforce crisis throughout the health and social services sector nationally, and public policy design that ignores their expertise.” Lewis confirmed that he had not discussed his encampment proposal with local outreach providers, including those working with unsheltered people downtown.

“I would not assume that a quick response team will be able to jump forward to start a new initiative, especially one they weren’t involved in designing,” Daugaard continued. “Most providers are seeing such positions sit unfilled for months at a time.”

Daugaard said the majority of people living downtown need intensive case management, services, and low-barrier housing. “Most of the folks out on the streets of downtown right now have extensive barriers — beyond [the desire to retain] pets/partners/possessions — that would normally result in them being screened out of group living situations. It won’t help much to invest in large-scale accommodations that don’t match the situation of most of those who are actually on the street.”

In fact, although Lewis said most of the new encampments would be “low-barrier” — allowing people in active addiction, for example, or those with behavioral health conditions that make them particularly disruptive on the streets of downtown Seattle — it’s unclear how this would work in practice. Nickelsville — Lewis’ exemplar of a tiny house village that started as a camp — kicks people out for violating its strict rules against drugs, alcohol, and “abusive” behavior, and the Low-Income Housing Institute has a strict code of conduct for its tiny house villages, requiring on-site sobriety and barring sex offenders, for example.

Bagshaw said she sees sanctioned camps as being “not the solution, but a place where people can go where there are hygiene facilities, they can get water, they can get food, there’s connection. … All across the nation, people say ‘housing first,’ but in order to get housing, you have to have people willing to build the homes and do the operations, and in the meantime, you have to have places for people to stay that are not on the street.”

Even in the absence of sanctioned encampments or other new places for people to go, the Harrell Administration appears to be ramping up sweeps downtown. On Sunday, Feb. 20, anti-sweeps activists prevented City workers from removing a large encampment on 4th Avenue across from City Hall, but it’s unlikely that the removal will be forestalled for long, nor that it will be the last.

Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said that as of last Thursday, Feb. 17, the City’s HOPE Team had offered shelter referrals to three people in the area. “While we will do its best to offer shelter as available through the City’s HOPE team and the efforts of the RHA, we cannot allow tents and other structures to remain in the right of way if they are causing an obstruction or presenting a public health or safety risk. Under the City’s existing procedural rules, there is no requirement for offers of shelter when an encampment is creating an obstruction.”

The City’s rules for removing encampments require the City to provide 72 hours’ notice and offers of shelter before removing an encampment, but allow the City to clear encampments without notice, and with no offers of shelter or services, when an encampment poses an “obstruction.” During the Durkan Administration, the City interpreted this “obstruction” exemption broadly, to include any encampment on a sidewalk, in a park, or virtually any other public space. 

Most encampments in downtown Seattle exist in the public right-of-way and could be viewed as “obstructions,” potentially calling the entire premise of last week’s announcement about compassionate outreach, peer navigation, and individualized shelter and housing placements into question.

Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.

📸 Featured Image: Anti-sweeps signs near a tent encampment in downtown Seattle. (Photo: Erica C. Barnett)

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