• Fri. Aug 19th, 2022

Removal of homeless camp outside Seattle City Hall sparks strong and divided reactions

The Seattle Times’ Homeless Project is funded by BECU, the Bernier McCaw Foundation, the Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, the Seattle Foundation, and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over the content of Project Homeless.

Wayne Kirk woke up at 6:30 a.m. this morning and left the camp across from City Hall where he has been staying for a month and a half. When he returned at 7 a.m., he saw posted notices saying that work crews would come at 8 a.m. to force everyone out of the camp and remove garbage and personal belongings.

He fell asleep and woke up an hour later screaming: police and cleanup crews from Seattle Parks and Recreation had arrived. A city spokesperson said the notices were actually posted at 6 a.m.

City workers removed two city blocks’ worth of tents and personal effects Wednesday morning after just a few hours’ notice — an unusual practice for a camp with so many people. The city usually provides at least 48 hours notice. Over the past year, a long-term, no-hassle approach had become more common – and widely supported by city council members and trade associations – for large encampments.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell said seven people had been moved to shelters out of a total of 16.

The cleanup marked the end of a 2.5-week standoff between the mayor and Stop the Sweeps campaign activists, who occupied the camp and remained in shifts to prevent homeless people from being displaced.

It also comes as the city prepares to bring employees back to the office on March 16 and downtown businesses set similar deadlines. With the increased emphasis on Seattle’s commercial core came plans to move downtown residents out of there.

“We appreciate the concerted efforts of the city and county over the past few weeks to bring the chronically homeless inner city inside and connected to services,” the Downtown Seattle Association said in a statement. “As we work to recover downtown, it’s important to keep the city’s busiest sidewalks open and accessible to everyone.”

As Harrell has stepped up removals this year as part of campaign promises to crack down on visible homeless encampments, Stop the Sweeps activists have come forward to help people move their tents and belongings.

Harrell won the election last year by a commanding margin on a promise to take decisive action to open thousands of new shelters and get rid of encampments piling up around the city.

But for protesters, who watched angrily from behind police tape as the pullout from the camp they had tried to protect on Wednesday, the pullout is a symbol that Harrell cares more about optics – especially outside the window of his office – than helping people.

It is unclear whether activists will continue to stage long-term protests in large encampments as evictions become more common.

The protest, the suddenness of the town hall’s action, as well as the presence of police and a garbage truck, are reminiscent of a more controversial pre-pandemic approach to entrenched homeless camps.

“The site has been on the resolutions list for weeks,” Harrell’s spokesperson wrote in an email, but also said that under city moving rules, “tents, other structures and personal property left in the right-of-way are subject to immediate action.” removal if they create an obstruction or pose a public health or safety hazard that prevents pedestrians and vehicles from safely using the sidewalk or other rights-of-way,” so prompt notice was warranted.

The withdrawal was originally scheduled for February 20 and a notice was posted about 48 hours in advance, but when protesters showed up that morning they decided to occupy the camp with the homeless residents and moved refused to leave, one of the organizers, Jay Jones., noted.

“We had spoken with a few residents ahead of time who said, ‘I’m just not going to move out,'” Jones said.

When that prevented city workers from clearing the encampment, activists began staying in shifts — the first few nights a few camped there, then from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Jones said.

Knowing they could not hold out indefinitely, activists also tried to work with campers to get them to find accommodation on their own. Jones said activists had “more than five but less than 10” campers in one accommodation over the past two weeks, and stressed that the pullout interrupted that work.

Kirk, who has a room in a low-income housing program but won’t stay there because it won’t allow his wife to stay with him, said the volunteers were helping him get a marriage license.

But the activists grew weary as the weeks went on and they scattered doing the same in other downtown moves. This week, they only stayed between 8 a.m. and noon. When they showed up Wednesday morning, the police had beaten them to the camp.

Harrell has always spoken of compassion and political unity, and his lieutenants have overseen a return to the status quo of rapid camp moves that homeless advocates have decried.

The day before the move, Harrell told a news conference that the city was “not trying to force our way to safety.”

“I want the city to be clean. I want it safe,” Harrell said. “I’m here for the long game to rehabilitate Seattle. I’m here for the long term, and you’re not emphasizing a long term strategy by creating chaos and anger in the city. It’s a Seattle, and I ask those who may be intolerant of what you see, bear with me.

But most Seattle voters likely agree with Harrell’s approach. He beat challenger Mr Lorena González, who accepted calls to “stop the sweeps”, by one of the largest margins in a mayoral race since 1997.

Councilman Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, disagreed with Harrell’s use of the police and the quick timetable for the pullout, but said he had concerns. productive conversations with the mayor’s office about opening more shelters soon and that he was not “yet” worried about the mayor’s direction.

“A sidewalk is not a suitable place to live, but people need somewhere to go,” Lewis said. “I think everyone was offered shelter, but that raises the age-old question of the adequacy of shelter.”

Data from the county’s Homeless Management Information System shows that more people are leaving shelters to return to the streets or untracked destinations than entering housing.

Councilwoman Tammy Morales was more skeptical of the mayor’s decision on Wednesday, saying on Twitter that “sweeps are traumatic events that only push people from one street to another.”