Handling Seattle's illegal homeless encampments: From complaint to outreach to clean up

SEATTLE — As Seattle struggles over how to solve its homeless crisis, there is difficult work going on every day to help those in need. KIRO 7 got full access to the city’s Navigation Team, to see their entire process from complaint to outreach to clean up.

PHOTOS: Homeless camps around Seattle

"I have no idea what we're walking into."

August Drake-Ericson is used to walking into the unknown. As manager of Seattle's Navigation Team, she's on the front line of inspecting encampments around the city. On this day, she’s checking on reports of an encampment behind the Interbay Golf Course. There’s only one tent, but no one is inside. “It looks like this camp is actively being used, somebody is probably away for the day.”

August documents every angle of the camp, to determine if it's a hazard and needs to be cleared out. She notes there's no signs of criminal activity, but there is a concern around the corner: a gated area belonging to King County. The concern is county vehicles could drive up this path, not knowing they could hit the encampment. There are no other major issues she spotted relating to things like waste, fire hazards or drug use, which she details on the site inspection report.

"So like I said, a low priority camp, out of possible 10 items there are only 4 that we would reaching back to, so our biggest concern with this camper is outreach and getting him housed."

August oversees the 4 field coordinators currently working with homeless encampments in Seattle. It’s a big job considering there are approximately 4,480 unsheltered people in 400 encampments citywide.

“They’re probably the most stressed of the entire team. You’re seeing some heartbreak, so it’s a job that can really burn you out.” Field coordinators go through a minimum of 3 weeks of training. They then join August in the field before eventually heading out on their own.

The first step in collecting information on Seattle's encampments happens inside the Customer Service Bureau at City Hall.

Cheryl Brush runs the office, which takes calls on any kinds of questions or complaints about city services, which are increasingly about illegal encampments: “When an unauthorized encampment request is reported, we put the information into a centralized databank the city's navigation team uses that to identify new sites.” The Navigation Team uses information from that database to determine which camps need inspection based on potential hazards to the campers or to the public.

KIRO 7 joined the Navigation Team during outreach at an encampment in the Chinatown-International District. Before members move in, there’s a sort of “negotiation” with a man who's acting as lookout for the camp. Almost immediately, people start walking out before August, police sergeant Eric Zerr and outreach worker Yvonne Nelson go in.

August stops to talk with everyone she sees. The goal of this visit is to offer shelter to anyone who wants it. In two days, this encampment will be cleaned up and the campers cleared out. There are concerns about drug use at the camp and needles found at the church next door where a children’s summer camp will soon get underway.

August explains what’s happening: “Right now, our outreach workers are attempting to engage with the large community that’s in this structure, it’s opened all the way through. We’re lucky they’re inviting Yvonne to go in, but right now they’re only allowing her, single person, to go in.”

Just steps away, we noticed the posting telling campers they have 72 hours until the clean-up. It's right next to a tattered posting from the last time the camp was cleared out in March.

After spending time with the campers, members of the team emerge. “We offered shelter of course,” says Yvonne Nelson, “We offer it if somebody was from another state and they wanted to go home, we would readily do that. We also asked if anybody needed ID in there, we would do that. A few people are interested in shelter, but the shelter they want access to we don’t have today.” The shelter they want is the Navigation Center. It’s close to these encampments, has fewer rules and has been around enough to have a good reputation.

Yvonne is one of about 8 outreach workers the city contracts with through Evergreen Treatment Services. She’s been to this camp multiple times building relationships: “I got smiles…and I look like somebody’s aunt and all that on the way out. It wasn’t like that on the way in.”

We’re told there are many reasons why someone doesn’t accept shelter. SPD Sergeant Eric Zerr says “(for) some people, just having a lot of people in shelters around them is really tough for them. They would rather be outside where they can kind of move and be able to find a place where they don't have a lot of neighbors." Yvonne continues: “Pets, couples, stuff, belongings is like a really big thing, people accumulate stuff and you have to downsize when you're in shelters cause there's other people there. Couples, they have partners, married, not married, children, not children, family and so they like to stay together they've been protecting each other for quite some time."

A few days later, the team returned with a two-person cleaning crew and police escorts. The campers are given a final warning to leave, with outreach workers standing by to offer them shelter. 10 people slept at the camp last night, but by the time the clean-up begins, everyone is one. Outreach workers at 20 spots at local shelters, but none of them were filled today.

While the clean-up happens around her, field coordinator Laura Beck documents what’s left behind. “So basically, what I do is take a picture of the tent, show what condition it is in, anything that’s inside that we might be storing.” We joined Laura inside the largest tent, where we spotted a make shift living room, including a couch and chairs on wood pallets. From there, a ramp takes us to an upper level. There are numerous items left behind, including backpacks, camping materials, cell phones and even a laptop. Laura will check for any items that can be tagged and stored inside 4 trailers station in the SODO neighborhood. Campers will have 70 days to claim the items or they’ll be destroyed. The team will also check higher end items to see if they’re possibly stolen.

While Laura and the clean-up team wraps up, we join another field coordinator down the street, where she and police are posting new 72-hour warnings for an encampment in the Dearborn Corridor. Field coordinator Christina Korpi tapes the post to nearly every one of the dozens of tents in this encampment, explaining to the campers what’s going to happen: “I’m just going to post a notice to your tent, we’re posting the area, it will be cleaned next week Monday through Wednesday, outreach workers will be out here to talk to you about shelter options if you’re interested.” Will Lemke, who handles communications for the team says things in the area have deteriorated. “The team was out here about two weeks ago last and it was not nearly this big and the conditions were not nearly as dire as they are now.” In this camp, we saw more people in crisis: possible mental health issues and drug use. Campers have shown no interest in speaking with us on camera. Most, understandably, turn away when we show up, although one man told us off camera he loves Seattle...he's grateful for the mercy the city shows the homeless.

We continued up the hill, through huge mounds of trash and needles to under the Jose Rizal Bridge. Someone cut through protective fencing and added their own lock to guard more than a dozen tents underneath.

Days later, we returned to the bridge where only a handful of tents remain. This clean-up is much more extensive, covering the bridge and a large green area towards I-5. Some members of the crew are wearing hazmat suits as they pick up what appears to be hundreds of used needles. As in the previous camp, we spotted most people leaving without accepting shelter.

However, Sergeant Zerr made a connection with one camper. 20 year old Finn Smith has accepted a spot at First Presbyterian Church. “I’m extremely grateful. I passed up on an offer about a week ago and I’ve been regretting it ever since because this is not a place I want to live.” Finn has been living on the streets for about a month now. “He’s been thinking about this for awhile and I’m glad I was here for this little reflection point,” Sergeant Zerr says. “I just think he had a plan, he needs a reprieve, he needs a chance to reset and get himself figured out.”

The Navigation Team reports about 37% of the people they make contact with accept shelter. It takes an average of 4 contacts with a camper before they accept any kind of service.

Click here for a Q & A about Seattle';s Homeless Crisis.

Click here for more information on the city's rules dictating the process for homeless encampment removal.