City Hall

Coalition Demands No Sweeps, Brings a Force for Change on Homelessness

"I don't know what I'm going to do."

By Hayat Norimine November 2, 2017

Walter weston city hall sweeps teuamr

Walter Weston, 28, on the steps outside city hall on November 1, 2017.

It's been about two months since Walter Weston, 28, broke up with his girlfriend in Nevada, quit his job (where he had been working with her), and moved back to his mother's house in Salt Lake City. But a family member’s drug addiction, he says, spurred him to leave again and seek a new life in Seattle, where he grew up.

Weston was one of a few who were homeless and camped out in front of City Hall on Wednesday night alongside Housing for All Coalition members. They were protesting Seattle's 2018 budget package for more funding for homelessness, and demanding that there be no homelessness sweeps. It's been two years since former mayor Ed Murray declared the state of emergency, but the crisis continues; King County's Point-in-Time Count this year showed 11,643 people were homeless, 5,485 unsheltered.

The line for the council's public hearing Wednesday night curled out the door of city hall. Forty tents sat out front on the stairs—many them the night’s camping spot for those, like Weston, without a home. Most of those visitors were Housing for All Coalition members, but a group of Speak Out Seattle members came to oppose additional spending on methods they say don't work, like sanctioned encampments. Coalition members chanted, "Stop the sweeps!" and hissed at Speak Out Seattle members' public testimony as Speak Out Seattle supporters shouted back.

The balanced budget package brought forward by chair Lisa Herbold included a new employee hours tax on big businesses but not Kshama Sawant's change that would eliminate funding for unauthorized encampment sweeps. Tim Burgess and a group of top city officials on Wednesday sent council members a 23-page memo against Sawant's proviso, which they say would pose health and public safety risks and scrap a policy from that’s been connecting encampment residents to services.

Meanwhile, complaints have doubled compared to last year, city officials say.

"This proviso would undermine the city's most successful intervention strategy to date that has persuaded the most vulnerable individuals to move inside," they wrote. "It is inhumane to make living outdoors the city's default response to homelessness."

Weston didn't come to city hall to protest, only to sleep. But asked about sweeps, Weston says the concerns about public safety are "ridiculous" and an excuse to continue harmful policies.

He heard about the campout and brought his own one-person, light-green tent, where he kept his hiking backpack stuffed with his belongings—clothes, a few small pans, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a sleeping bag, a flashlight, a condom. Inside his jacket he carries his phone charger, sunglasses, and a swiss army knife. Lots of socks and underwear are essential in Seattle, he says, sweatshirts, several hats and gloves. He lugs the backpack around and walks everywhere, from his go-to shelter (Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets), to the public library, to the meal services where he eats downtown. The hills aren't easy, he says, but it's a good workout. He pats his leg. "Feel these calves. They're rock hard." (They were.)

He's enrolled in an online program for a bachelor's degree in computer science. He's still looking for a job to eventually save enough to move into housing, but most of his time is spent planning on where he'll go for his next meal. And he struggles to save money while battling heroin addiction himself.

The mayor's budget package included $63 million on homeless services, but that wasn't enough for both council members and the Housing for All Coalition. The controversial employee hours tax—which still needs more council members on board—would add another estimated $24 million. But even with that investment, O'Brien, Sawant, Harris-Talley, and Herbold say it's not enough.

Decisions will determine the direction of city policies affecting the most vulnerable population in the city. And winter is coming.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Weston says. "I'm going to be screwed."

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