Word cloud displaying the 100 most common descriptive terms pertaining to rhetoric deployed by complainants using the "Find It Fix It" app.

Seeing Sweeps in a New Way: Data Visualization Invites Analysis of Seattle’s Housing Crises Responses

by Guy Oron

(This article was originally published on Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

Despite years of criticism and successive legislative efforts by the Seattle City Council, the City of Seattle has proceeded on its policy of sweeps unabated.

Save a brief respite during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 when the City dramatically scaled down — but did not halt — the continual involuntary displacement of unsheltered people, Seattle has conducted hundreds of sweeps a year for the better part of a decade.

With opposition from groups such as Stop the Sweeps and a growing consensus among academic researchers indicating the harmful effects of these policies, a critical question remains unanswered: Why has the City refused or failed to end the sweeps?

One clue could be found in new data obtained by Real Change showing that more than 29,000 complaints were made in 2022 related to homelessness and unhoused people’s encampments.

According to the log from the City’s Customer Service Bureau, roughly 76.5% of complaints were made via the “Find It Fix It” app, which allows residents to report issues to the City government, such as potholes or other inconveniences. Other methods for submitting complaints included an online form, email, phone, and voicemail. No identifying information was provided, meaning that it is not known how many of the complaints were unique or made again and again by the same people.

Some of the broad themes of these complaints include grievances about specific camps or tents, garbage, drugs, and property crime. The five most common nouns in these comments were “encampment,” “park,” “homeless,” “camping,” and “tent.” Other notable words include “trash,” “drug,” “illegal,” and “unauthorized,” indicating negative, sometimes dehumanizing, rhetoric used by complainants. Words such as “support,” “services,” and “housing” were used far less.

Northwest Seattle appears to be a hotbed of complaints. Four out of the five most frequently cited spots are in that area, including the Greenwood Fred Meyers parking lot (291 complaints); the corner of NW 56th Street and 14th Avenue NW (228 complaints); the open lot adjacent to the Greenwood shopping mall and Fred Meyers (218 complaints); and the Ballard area around the crossroads of NW 60th Street and 24th Avenue NW (133 complaints). The east side of Cal Anderson Park also received a large volume (159 complaints).

It is not known exactly how accurate these locations are — they may be approximations as opposed to precise points. A visual representation can be seen in the map Real Change produced below, showing a broad dispersal of complaints throughout the city.

Map of Seattle with blue clusters depicting the location of homelessness-related complaints.
More than 29,000 homelessness-related complaints were made to the city of Seattle referencing specific locations rendered here; the size of dots ranges from one complaint to 200 complaints centered in one location. (Map by Guy Oron)

Alongside this map, the paper also produced a map visualizing the approximate locations of the more than 900 sweeps that the City conducted in 2022.

Map of Seattle with pink clusters representing sweeps that occurred in the area.
Seattle conducted more than 900 sweeps in 2022, with each dot in the map corresponding to between 1 and 60, depending on respective size. (Map: Guy Oron)

The maps show that, while some areas have high numbers of complaints and sweeps, residents of other neighborhoods are pulling out their smartphones to no avail, either because there aren’t actually that many unhoused people there to sweep or they just don’t rank among the City’s priorities. 

The highest number of sweeps were done in the Pioneer Square, Chinatown-International District, and SoDo neighborhoods, corresponding to large numbers of complaints. Other sweep hotspots included the rest of downtown, Capitol Hill, Ballard, Green Lake, and Lake City — all of which had large numbers of complaints as well. However, other areas such as Greenwood, Laurelhurst, West Seattle, the southern portion of the Rainier Valley, Ravenna, Magnolia, Eastlake, and Meadowbrook had a relatively large number of complaints but few or no documented sweeps.

This could indicate purposeful misuse of the Find It Fix It app, with people submitting numerous repeated complaints about encampments for areas where unsheltered Seattleites don’t really live. According to the One Seattle Homelessness Action Plan dashboard, about one-third of RVs and tents identified by the City were located in SoDo and Georgetown in March 2023.

This data illuminates what may be a vocal political constituency responsible for upholding the displacement policies, something unhoused advocates will have to contend with in order to abolish sweeps in Seattle.

Guy Oron is Real Change’s staff reporter. A Seattleite, he studied at the University of Washington. Guy’s writing has been featured in The Stranger and the South Seattle Emerald. Outside of work, Guy likes to spend their time organizing for justice, rock climbing, and playing chess. Find them on Twitter @GuyOron.

📸 Featured Image: A word cloud displaying the 100 most common descriptive terms shows the rhetoric deployed by complainants. (Graphic: Guy Oron)

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