Clear the Camps (or) Let Sleeping Bags Lie?

Seattle has a new playbook for clearing out squatter camps, but critics say it’s inhumane and leaves the homeless nowhere to go.

By James Ross Gardner January 4, 2009 Published in the April 2008 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Devon Bowman

IMAGINE YOU’RE QUEEN ANNE RESIDENT Don Harper. You keep seeing strangers traipsing through your neighborhood—men in dingy clothing, so worn down by the world they look out of focus, men with their whole lives in backpacks or 10-gallon Glad bags, who disappear into the nearby greenbelt and reappear carrying nothing.

You complain to city hall. Sometimes the police clear out the outsiders and their camps. Sometimes they don’t. You go into the thickets to see for yourself and find whole hillsides terraced, floors made of timber, tarps for walls and ceilings—ingenious solutions to desperate living conditions. “Some of it is very impressive,” says Harper, who heads the Queen Anne Community Council’s parks committee. But man, what a mess, like a KOA site hit by a tornado. Trash everywhere, booze bottles and toilet paper. And oh god, the smell—like an open sewer.

So if you’re Don Harper, you’re happy to learn that after years of haphazard responses the City of Seattle has drafted a uniform procedure for cleaning out encampments. If you’re one of the hundreds of drifting and dispossessed people with no place to sleep in Seattle but the woods, you’re alarmed and appalled. Last October city crews descended on a handful of squatter camps near Queen Anne’s Kinnear Park and, while the occupants were away, swept up tents, cooking gear, sleeping bags, and family photos. In their wake they left a notice listing a phone number the campers could call to salvage their possessions. But when they called, the line was disconnected.

These are Seattle’s camp wars, an ongoing clash between city officials and advocates in which each side insists it has the best solution for the region’s homelessness crisis and accuses the other of callous indifference, either to needy people with no place to bunk but woods and parks, or to those who live in houses nearby. The fight took a particularly ugly turn in January, when directors from seven municipal departments drafted a policy on unauthorized camps on city grounds. They planned to finalize this policy in March, but the issue will surely remain contentious long after that.

"Seizing and destroying homeless persons’ property violates the Fourth Amendment." —Tulin Ozdeger, Civil Rights Director, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty

“Encampments in greenbelts and public properties present serious public safety and health problems,” argues Seattle Human Services director Patricia McInturff, the City’s designated spokesperson on this touchy issue. And this squatting leads to “unsanitary toileting practices, increased population of rats, illegal behavior including drinking, drug use, and noise.”

Under a draft of the new policy, the City must give campers a 48-hour warning before clearing out a site and must connect them with the right social services. After the warning period, city workers are authorized to throw away all sleeping bags and anything “reasonably valued at less than $25” and confiscate the remaining items. Campers have 60 days to recover their property.

Advocates for the homeless charge that the policy does nothing for them except push them out of sight. “When the city talks about ending homelessness, what they’re really talking about is ending visible homelessness,” says Tim Harris, director of Real Change, a weekly newspaper sold by homeless vendors. “I think the City’s stance is truly dreadful,” says Greenlake resident and longtime activist Nancy Amidei. Other critics call it unconstitutional. In a letter to the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, Tulin Ozdeger, civil rights director at the Washington, DC–based National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, declares that “the practice of seizing and destroying homeless persons’ property violates the Fourth Amendment, as such practices amount to unreasonable searches and seizures.” When other cities such as Miami and Los Angeles implemented similar policies, the courts sided with the homeless.

Then there’s the math. King County has more than 8,000 homeless people and just 4,184 shelter beds. In addition, some social services offer hotel and motel vouchers, and various religious organizations sponsor tent city camps in designated parking lots. But all those options still leave many people with nowhere to go. On one frigid January night the Coalition on Homelessness counted 2,631 men and women sleeping in alleys, bus shelters, parks, and greenbelts. That’s not counting the 140 who stayed in severe-weather emergency shelters. Nevertheless, Seattle Human Services director McInturff insists that “unauthorized encampments are not an acceptable or humane option for shelter or housing.”

"Encampments in greenbelts present serious public safety and health problems." —Patricia McInturff, Director, City of Seattle Department of Human Services

The advocates scoff at McInturff’s use of the term “humane,” and at proposed rules like giving 48-hour notice. “Is 48 hours enough time to respond if someone came to your home to take everything you have?” one asked at a January 28 city hearing on the sweep-out policy. “I don’t think it’s long enough,” says Dan Wise, program manager at the Aloha Inn, a transitional housing facility. Coming and going as they do, says Wise, homeless squatters may not even be aware their property has been targeted for seizure: “It’s not like they keep regular hours or have 9 to 5 jobs.” Indeed, compared to other cities, Seattle offers very short notice. Police in Cincinnati give 72 hours’ notice before clearing out a homeless camp. Pittsburgh gives seven days and Washington, DC, gives 14.

Back on Queen Anne, Don Harper isn’t worried. “The 48-hour rule is humane,” he says. “I think it gives them enough time to get their belongings.” At first Harper thought 48 hours was too much time, but he changed his mind after hearing homeless people testify at the January hearing. It’s hard to look at homelessness as an abstract social malady after you hear someone like John Bayley, a Real Change vendor, explain that what looks like trash could be a cherished possession—say, a family photo. “I can’t understand how the city can put a value on a picture and say, ‘Well it’s under $25,’ and throw it in the garbage,” Bayley said. “Everything has been taken away from me as it is. I don’t have a place to live, I don’t have a place to sleep, I don’t have a place to take a shower, to wash my clothes. Now you want to take the last piece that’s holding me together?”

“I was moved,” said the City’s McInturff after Bayley and others testified. She and her colleagues may consider granting more than 48 hours’ notice when they finalize the clean-sweep policy. She says they may also rethink that $25-or-less rule. But they’re not backing off their determination to sweep out the camps, regardless of where the campers will have to go.

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