In November 2015, Seattle mayor Ed Murray announced a state of emergency on homelessness (Beekman and Broom, 2015). The housing crisis is the reality of our tech booming city, where since 2012 median rent has increased by 45% (Zillow, 2016) and the number of people living outside has increased from nearly 2,600 to over 4,500 (Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, 2016). The mayor’s approach to addressing houselessness has been criticized sharply by housing justice activists, the ACLU, several city councilors, and the previous Department of Justice (Jaywork, 2017). Under Murray, the city conducts “cleanups” of unauthorized tent encampments.
Deemed ‘sweeps’ by activists, crews arrive after a 72 hour notice (at a random time, typically closer to 10 days), confiscate all property, and throw away any bags (out of safety concern) and all objects deemed worth under $25, often disastrous to those affected. Sarah Russo, whose ID, clothes, and tent were lost to a sweep, stated, “They didn’t even say sorry. They just said it was at the dump.” Regaining possessions adds another burden, as Mike Baker at The Seattle Times describes, “Many residents interviewed mentioned the challenge of finding where their items had gone after a sweep. When a reporter called the city help number that’s left at many cleaned encampments, even the person answering the phone didn’t know where the belongings had been stored.” 98-99% of confiscated belongings are never recovered, trashed after 60 days in Industrial District storage. In today’s sweep of The Field, a Tent City Collective member observed workers, “using boxcutters to destroy tents, directly contradicting the narrative that possessions are being stored and can be reclaimed.” Along with the cleanup, the city makes an attempt to connect the residents to shelters, but its effort and success is notoriously low; of 293 displaced people from November 2015 to January 2016, just 90 received shelter, and a Seattle Times story covering a sweep witnessed the outreach team arrive late after the fact. Small encampments are not even guaranteed the 3 day notice and resource outreach (Baker, 2016).
As Murray’s primary tool for his state of emergency on homelessness, these cleanups are a fundamentally harmful, inhumane, and ineffective practice. Councilmember Mike O’Brien worked with the ACLU to propose legislation that defined suitable and unsuitable locations for people living outside, which would’ve solved the sanitation issue by bringing garbage cans, porta potties, and needle disposal to them (Trumm, 2016). Despite the clear problematic status quo of sweeps and the legislation’s support from most councilmembers, the negative response to the legislation and general anti-homeless rhetoric was massive, and the effort lost steam after the US presidential election. This year, the city presented a draft of new rules to conduct sweeps with, and while most of the procedures seem mildly more humane, the revised process will allow up to 10 “emphasis areas” chosen by the city to be exempt from the 72-hour eviction notice protocol, allowing immediate sweeps (Groover, 2017). The areas do not have a defined size and can be changed by the city at any time.
The Field and The Jungle
After the city swept the infamous Jungle in October, residents were told to move to a lot across from the bus depot in SODO, which is referred to as “The Field of Dreams,” shown between I-90’s exit and I-5. In order to maintain a hygienic environment, volunteers from groups such as Stop The Sweeps and UW’s Tent City Collective, myself included, have assisted residents at The Field by bagging truckloads of trash from abandoned tent sites, under the impression that the city would pick the bags up from the curb. After over a month, the city still hasn’t picked up the trash, and posted a notice that they will sweep The Field on March 7th. The mayor’s public safety advisor, Scott Lindsay, penned a letter to the city council on the eviction, citing, “increasing public health and public safety hazards that make it unsafe for those living or visiting there. The public health threats include a major rodent infestation and significant accumulation of uncontained biowaste.” Lindsay doesn’t deny the work done by volunteers, offering the message that they should instead, “channel that energy into help transitioning people inside over the next 10 days,” (Lindsay, 2017). The same language of health and safety is often used when supporting laws that criminalize public urination and defecation. The creation of such laws, like the sweeps, does nothing to bring access to a safer living standard. City council candidate Jon Grant wrote in solidarity about The Field:
The answer to these serious and real concerns of safety must not be collective punishment. Sweeping the encampment overlooks the direct role the city played in creating unsafe conditions at the encampment. The city itself directed homeless individuals across the city, including those evicted from the Jungle, to move to the Field yet offered no additional resources or support to existing residents.
Our campaign over the past month has been bringing in volunteers to assist the residents of the encampment to improve conditions where the city has fallen short. We have removed dozens of bags of trash the city has refused to pick up and constructed a heated community tent to shelter residents during the recent snowstorm. Residents shared with me personally their repeated requests for fire extinguishers at the camp, requests made more urgent following multiple tent fires. (Grant, 2017)
Grant continued, pointing out the complete hypocrisy of Murray’s affirming declarations of sanctuary while displaying hostility to such a marginalized group of our neighbors:
In an era where our community is coming together to resist federal deportations of immigrants, we must too resist the expulsion of the homeless by our own city. First we swept the homeless from city benches, then the sidewalks, and now the greenbelts; the city can’t sweep people to the sea. (Grant, 2017)
Reavy Washington is a resident of The Field and is widely considered a community organizer, mediator, and leader. At a UW panel on March 3rd I attended, Reavy expressed that the city doesn’t like the fact that his work organizes and empowers residents. Cory Potts, a community organizer with Common Cents, who attends The Field’s meetings and maintains its website, wrote, “According to the residents, their immediate community is their best form of protection and their most valuable resource. They feel that the city’s intention to clear their encampment represents a direct threat to their safety and see remaining at the site as the only way to ensure their community survives,” (Potts, 2017). Displacing the community that’s been established by splitting up and spreading out its members without the ability to offer them permanent housing will solve no problems, and will only harm the most vulnerable. For Reavy and others, The Field is home, and sleeping in a shelter would not be.
Property and the Unhoused
In “Homelessness, Rights, and the Delusion of Property,” geography Professor Nicholas Blomley of Simon Fraser University noted the historical absence of discussion on private property in discourse on homelessness, and argues that homelessness is fundamentally produced and regulated by property. Blomley comments on that commonly held beliefs that, “For conservatives, the homeless are people who have made bad choices. For progressives, they are victims of structural forces that drive them into poverty.” Neither worldview addresses that the existence of homelessness is not about an individual’s situation, but about access to housing. Under our system, a place to be, sleep, and pee is not considered a right, unlike the exclusive ownership of land that gives some the ability to decide who gets to be housed. Blomley quotes Jeremy Waldron, an earlier geographer on the unhoused, who stated that for them, private property creates, “a series of fences that stand between them and somewhere to be, somewhere to act,” (p.578). Their non-ownership status causes them to always have duties imposed on their experience of space, and they never experience rights to it. Blomley dubs the property market and one’s position in it “a difference machine,” (p.581) citing the net wealth of homeowners compared to renters. The average American homeowner has 45x the wealth of the average renter, a figure that’s risen with property values from 36x in 2013 (Yun, 2015). Through this, he argues for a spectrum of living conditions and security that’s based on association with property, ranging through owner, renter, couch surfer, encampment resident, sheltered, unsheltered, and everything in-between. Gentrification of property causes displacement, as it increases the barriers to housing above the existing population’s abilities, evicting renters from older apartments to build luxury condominiums, polarizing a neighborhood to property owners and those without housing. (Blomley, 2009)
Criminalization of Existence
Regulations increasingly exist on how unhoused people can experience public and private property, such as ordinances against panhandling and laying down in public places, and enforcement of public intoxication and urination. Blomley argues, “the imperative to maintain urban property values in an uncertain, globalizing world partly explains the growing clamor for such regulation. Put crudely, the goal is to move the homeless from areas of investment and profit to ensure that they do not threaten such investments,” (583). An organized and active community of those least privileged to property, like Reavy fosters at The Field, could be an existential threat to this paradigm. The site was initially sanctioned by the city due to its lack of visibility from areas of investment, tucked by a highway and in the industrial district.
Blomley uses the 1990s ‘revitalization’ of downtown Seattle as an example, when “crafting an image of downtown as vibrant, diverse, and safe,” meant passing “civility laws” (584), including a ban on sitting on sidewalks during most hours, sleeping at parks and in cars, and aggressive panhandling (Blomley, 2009). From 2010 to 2015, 5,814 of these anti-homeless citations were issued, 71% of which were for sleeping. Failing to pay the civil infraction tickets that most unhoused people cannot afford results in criminal misdemeanor penalties, and often harsh sentencing. 68% of people charged with panhandling serve two months to a year in prison (Olson and MacDonald, p. 13). The city also cancelled plans for downtown public restrooms and showers at this time. The Puget Sound Business Journal argued against the hygiene center because it would’ve been “in the heart of an area the city has targeted for retail redevelopment, where business people are poised to make substantial investments, and near the new symphony hall now under construction,” making it, “at odds with its surroundings,” (Nelson, 1997).
Without radical change, the city doesn’t have the resources to instantly house all. Knowing this, the most ethical thing to do is to establish places that are safe and non-disruptive, and offer people the closest thing to home we can: 24/7 restroom access, sanitation, and peace of mind from the potential of losing everything to eviction and the legality of their existence.
Seattle’s governance has historically been harmful to unhoused residents, and continues to do so through sweeps and criminalization. It does so within the context of being a neoliberal city that wants to promote private economic growth, and this needs to be understood before we pat ourselves on the back for inclusivity and progressivism. Our economy and community have left 10,000 Seattlelites without the basic human right of shelter, a fact that should foster solidarity and make all empathetic people consider radical change in the distributional system. It shouldn’t be a considered too lofty of an idea that in the wealthiest country to ever exist, everyone should have access to basic, life-sustaining necessities, and that fulfilling them is more important than the maintenance of arbitrary and unequal exclusive right to land parcels. Addressing the issue by curtailing any self-driven attempt to gain a secure living situation only causes more harm, while wasting money and time by chasing homelessness from place to place and incarcerating people for surviving.