End Seattle’s inhumane sweeps of homeless camps

Homeless camp sweep in the U District, Seattle
The aftermath of a sweep of a Seattle homeless camp. Photo: Guerry Hoddersen
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The Seattle area is home to the world’s two richest people, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. It is also a place where those who have no homes are treated with inhuman callousness. The city regularly evicts them from their tent encampments with sweeps that force them to scramble for other shelter and often destroy their few possessions in the process.

One such raid took place on August 7 in Seattle’s University District in a military-style operation that included a large, ominous detachment of police cars, bulldozers and garbage trucks spread out for 11 blocks along I-5 freeway ramps. 

Community outrage and concern over sanitation and safety are often cited as the reason for the sweeps. But James, known as “Little Man” and one of the people rousted, was not buying this excuse. He told reporters for the Freedom Socialist who stopped to talk, “It’s not the community that wants us to move. It’s the state and the Seattle Police Department.”

The SPD, of course, takes its orders from Democratic Mayor Jenny Durkan and the rest of the official city establishment. Seattle government has been quietly ramping up the sweeps instead of finding real solutions to the area’s housing crisis. Under the influence of a tech boom led by Amazon, yearly rent increases until very recently have been among the highest in the country. Without any policy announcements, 93 raids took place in the first four months of 2019, compared to 11 in the same period in 2018.

The August 7 sweep displaced 50 people, who showed amazing resiliency in the face of this disruption. A man with a fulltime job was trying to figure out if he could get his belongings settled somewhere in time to report for work for a half-day. A social worker was organizing to get her homeless client squared away and to a court hearing on time.

Speaking of where the victims of the raid were supposed to go next, James said, “The social workers are excellent people, but there is nothing they can do for us in the moment. Where’s the housing?”

The latest homeless count for Seattle’s King County reported 11,199 people without a residence, far more than the number of shelter beds available. Of those more than 11,000 people, 2,451 were people in families with children; 1,089 were young people on their own. And 27 percent of the homeless were African Americans, who make up only 6 percent of the county’s population.

Seattle has spent $638 million on new infrastructure specifically to accommodate Amazon’s needs. (See the FS story “How Amazon and Boeing Ate Seattle”) Surely the city can spend a generous amount of money to routinely clean up homeless encampments, instead of destroying them, and provide sanitation. Seattle should also officially sanction more tent encampments and set aside spaces for people living in their vehicles. 

The long-term solutions aren’t rocket science either. Rent control; quality public housing; an end to Washington’s regressive tax system, the most backward in the country, which is forcing homeowners side by side with renters out of Seattle or into homelessness. It’s a matter of priorities! Continue to cater to corporations and the rich, or do right by workers and the poor.

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