Seattle Times

Chaos, trash and tears: Inside Seattle’s flawed homeless sweeps

One morning this spring, under Interstate 5 along Jackson Street, residents of a homeless camp emerged from tents and shelters built from broken branches to find state crews and a dump truck arriving on scene.

The day before, workers had handed out green trash bags, telling the dwellers that cleaning the Seattle site could save them from eviction. The bags sat filled to capacity, but the state crews had returned for a broader mission: to clear out all belongings and people.

The miscommunication left those living in the camp — some cursing, some crying — in a scramble to move personal items across the street before a mini excavator could scoop everything into a truck headed for the dump. The city has emphasized the importance of having outreach workers involved in the camp sweeps to connect the ousted residents to a variety of services. But no outreach workers arrived to help that day.

In observing more than a dozen sweeps that took place across Seattle during the past five months, The Seattle Times witnessed a series of disorganized attempts that undermined the city’s goal of maintaining a humane and productive cleanup process.

The bureaucratic failures were mitigated, in part, by the workers on the ground who were responsible for picking through and cleaning up daunting heaps of trash. One city worker was often seen patiently helping residents pack and move their belongings so that encampment sites could be cleaned of waste that could harm residents. And in interviews, many homeless residents praised the persistence and advocacy of the outreach workers.

But much of the time, the various city, state and nonprofit agencies struggled to properly coordinate their schedules, leaving homeless residents unclear about the timing of some cleanups and without a chance to connect with an outreach worker. And despite guidelines calling on the city to store personal items that are collected from cleanup sites, homeless residents say they have repeatedly lost critical belongings in the process.

After The Times filed public-records requests and questioned city officials about the cleanup efforts, Mayor Ed Murray sent a letter to council members on July 29, acknowledging flaws with the encampment sweeps and saying he would convene a task force to examine the issue.

“This process is far from perfect and we are constantly trying to find improvement in our practices that will best serve the needs of everyone in our city,” Murray wrote.

On Friday, after this story was posted online, the mayor said future sweeps will include a monitor from the city’s Office for Civil Rights who will ensure that extensive outreach is provided prior to the cleanup and that outreach workers are on scene when cleanups begin.

Click here to read the rest of The Seattle Times story.