Photo depicting Fourth Avenue strewn with belongings as workers in high-visibility vests collect and throw the items into a dump truck.

Surprise Sweep Displaces Encampment, Scattering Unsheltered People Throughout Downtown

by Erica C. Barnett

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

A three-week standoff between mutual-aid volunteers and the City of Seattle over a row of tents across the street from City Hall ended abruptly this morning, March 9, in a surprise sweep spearheaded by police and the Seattle parks department, who cordoned off Third and Fourth Avenues between Cherry and Washington Streets and began ordering people out of their tents at 8:00 am. (The parks department posted removal signs at 6:00 a.m., giving anyone who happened to be awake just two hours to pack up and get out.)

By the time the workday started, police had blocked the Fourth Avenue and side entrances to City Hall with metal barricades, and dozens of officers surrounded the encampment on all sides, directing pedestrians away from the area.

Within an hour, most of the tents that have lined Fourth Avenue for months had disappeared into dump trucks, and only a few unsheltered people remained on site. Many appeared to have moved around the corner or down the street to locations outside the police tape, which was still being patrolled by dozens of officers. “Even though a two-day notice isn’t great, people can start to formulate an idea [about what they’re going to do],” said Tye, a mutual-aid worker. “But this two-hour notice is super debilitating in terms of making plans for the future. … People are just going to take whatever they can carry on their backs, and they’re just going to move literally right outside of this area.”

On the north end of the former encampment, a man who had been living in a tent at the corner of Fourth and Cherry ducked under the police line to rescue his shoes and a few personal items from his tent, which the City’s trash crew was preparing to throw away. In a statement, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said that “Seattle Parks and Recreation staff store personal items in accordance with City policy.” However, volunteers who were on-site before PubliCola arrived said that the City had not set anyone’s property aside for storage, and it was obvious from observing the sweep that workers were throwing everything into dump trucks and hauling it away.

Harrell’s office said that the surprise sweep was necessary “to address obstruction to pedestrian access of Fourth Avenue between James Street and Columbia Street.” According to the statement, at least 15 people from the encampment received shelter referrals in the past three weeks from outreach providers and the City’s HOPE team.

Mutual-aid workers said they were aware of four people who received referrals to shelter during Wednesday’s sweep — two to the Navigation Center near 12th and Jackson and two to Lakefront Community House in North Seattle. “A lot of folks haven’t gotten the housing or shelter or services that they actually need and can take, so we’ve seen a lot of folks just leave,” a mutual-aid worker named Alyssa said. Referrals are not the same thing as shelter placements; a person with a referral still has to decide whether a shelter is a good fit for them and get to the shelter, where they may have to wait hours before being admitted. People often accept referrals but don’t end up in shelter, or leave because the shelter isn’t a good fit for them.

A spokeswoman for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) told PubliCola, “We didn’t know about [the sweep] and we don’t support it.”

The City, along with the KCRHA, has set a goal of reducing the number of people living unsheltered downtown from about 1,000 to “functional zero” through a combination of “peer navigation” and shelter and housing placements; sweeps like the one on Wednesday arguably contradict that goal by contributing to deep mistrust between unsheltered people and City and County authorities.

In a more practical sense, removing tents from Fourth Avenue without offering people appropriate shelter, and services only moves those people to other locations — usually nearby. Throwing away people’s tents and possessions and dispersing people throughout an area doesn’t actually address their homelessness; in fact, it often makes them harder to help, by fostering mistrust and making them harder to find. Already, service providers report growing encampments in areas where people are less likely to notice and complain about tents, such as greenbelts, wooded areas near highways, and empty lots away from residential areas. When this happens, outreach workers say, it becomes much harder to find clients and help connect them to services.

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: Workers toss tents into the back of a dump truck on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle (Photo: Erica C. Barnett)

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