Sweeps Trample The Rights And Lives Of Seattle’s Homeless

On May 25, I wrote an article for The Seattle Times arguing that the city should strengthen the rules protecting the fundamental property rights of homeless residents before conducting “sweeps” of unauthorized homeless encampments. It is reprinted below. If you have time, go read the commenters on the Times website, who serve up takes so hot that I want to crush them into powder and sell them in baggies.

If you’re lucky, a sweep starts with a flier. A copy-paper-sized posting informs residents of a homeless encampment that they have three days to go somewhere else — anywhere else. And at the appointed time — or, too frequently, at a different time — cleanup crews, dumpsters and backhoes arrive to quietly and efficiently wipe anything that remains from the map.

Seattle Times illustration
Seattle Times illustration

While Seattle does not publicize how frequently it conducts sweeps, a safe answer is “very.” The Seattle Times counted at least 527 last year, up from 80 in 2012. The city justifies this practice by arguing that camps are unsafe and invite criminal activity. But with increasing frequency, they illegally deprive the homeless of their worldly possessions. Sweeps no longer function as policy tools; they are punitive measures that fail to mitigate the ongoing homelessness crisis.

Pursuant to rules adopted in 2008, the city must provide 72 hours’ notice before conducting a sweep and must store for 60 days any property that cleanup crews seize. Myriad exceptions, though, render these protections toothless. Officials may gut without warning a chronically inhabited area — a descriptor which, in a city grappling with a homelessness state of emergency, applies to almost every encampment. They may dispense with notice requirements in areas that contain only one or two tents, as if geographic proximity to neighbors somehow determines one’s interest in knowing of an impending eviction.

While the city nominally offers shelter to displaced residents, nearly three-quarters decline the invitation because the type of shelter they seek is unavailable. And even if it is, a temporary shelter bed does not compensate for losing a place in which one can live for an indefinite period of time. For many, these tents and tarps are a home.

Finally, the rules require storage of seized property for reclamation only if its value exceeds $25. Otherwise, crews may treat it as garbage and dispose of it on the spot. This immediate, unappealable destruction of property violates the Fourth and 14th amendments, which protect against unreasonable seizures regardless of whether one has a place to store their things.

Moreover, a dollar figure is a particularly callous method for valuing the property of someone who lives on the street. Homeless residents are summarily stripped of their tents, blankets, medication, birth certificates and cherished family photos. Sweeps may get rid of unsightly camps, but they cruelly destroy some of the city’s most fragile lives in the process.

Officials understandably want to keep people safe. But the camps they target are mere symptoms of the deeper, more difficult problem of homelessness. Sweeps are a shortsighted, unproductive response because they do nothing to address conditions that give rise to camps in the first place.

With this in mind, Indianapolis recently enacted reforms that require it to ensure the availability of alternative shelter before proceeding with a sweep. If there is insufficient housing after the 15-day notice period, the city must wait. And the reforms employ no arbitrary dollar amount to distinguish between garbage and personal property.

This ordinance might appear to constrain the city’s ability to address homelessness. But really, it only requires that policymakers present a plan and consider the consequences of their actions. These are fair, reasonable expectations of government officials. Seattle can and should go a step further by making robust support services available to those affected by sweeps. Sweeps should be the first step in exiting homelessness, not a permanent fact of life for the city’s homeless residents.

While Seattle responds to the ongoing crisis, it cannot violate fundamental legal rights or standards of decency in doing so. Nor should it ignore its responsibility to provide the forcibly evicted with a safe, alternative place to go. It is time to revisit these outdated policies and ensure that Seattle provides its homeless residents with a fair, thoughtful and considered path forward.

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