Seattle's illegal homeless encampments: a Q-and-A on the city's response

Seattle's illegal homeless encampments: a Q-and-A on the city's response

This Q-and-A about Seattle's homelessness response was updated August 29, 2018. If you have a question you'd like to see answered or a story you want KIRO 7 to cover, use this link to send an email.

How many homeless people are in Seattle?
The latest count in January 2018 was King County wide and found 12,112 "people experiencing homelessness." That included 6,320 unsheltered people (52 percent). The count is done on one night by a volunteer-led countywide canvas of King County census tracts.
How does that compare to a year ago?
The same count in January 2017 found 11,643 "people experiencing homelessness" in King County That included 5,485 people in encampments. There was a 4 percent overall increase from 2017 to 2018.

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How does the homeless number compare to a decade ago?
In 2008, the same count found 8,439 homeless people in King Country, and the unsheltered number was 2,482 (29 percent). In 2008, U.S. Census Bureau Data estimated Seattle had 603,404 people, and that number in 2017 jumped to an estimated 725,000 people -- a 20 percent increase.

How many homeless encampments are in Seattle?
More than 400 as of June 2018, according to city staff.

How many are removed per week?
Not more than five per week, according to city records.

Why doesn't Seattle move encampments faster?
The city follows policy in removing encampments, and that policy was revised to the current procedure in March 2017. The initial policy was created in 2008. That 2017 policy revision came from the City Council, former Mayor Ed Murray's office and the Multi-Department Rules Committee. The removal policy, which can be read here, outlines the removal process. And that removal process can take weeks or months unless there's a scenario that the city recognizes as a safety hazard.

What is the removal process in bullet form? 
- A database of encampments is updated through calls to the city's Customer Service Bureau, through the Find It Fix It app, and city staff observations

- The city’s Navigation Team evaluates which encampments need further study, and a field coordinator is sent to evaluate the site.

- Outreach workers with a social work background are sent to offer services, including shelter. If the city deems the site a hazard, a 72-hour notice to vacate is posted. If it’s not a hazard, the team will continue outreach.

- If a 72-hour notice was posted, the Navigation Team will return when the deadline is reached. The team includes police offices, a clean-up crew and outreach workers.

- The Navigation Team clears the area, offering campers the option to accept shelter. However, some refuse to leave camps on their own.

How many Seattle field coordinators are there?
Seattle has four field coordinators that handle roughly 400 sanctioned encampments with an estimated 4,500 campers. City policy states a field coordinator needs to be part of the process before removal. Seattle has eight outreach workers contracted through Evergreen Treatment Services.

Do multiple calls move things along faster?
Not necessarily, Cheryl Brush of the city's customer service bureau and Navigation Team manager August Drake-Ericson said. Brush and her staff get people who call every day, and that information is collected and passed along to field coordinators. But the focus is on the conditions being reported. Evaluations from field coordinators carry more weight than the volume of calls about a location, specifically if there is a hazard to the public or to campers.

How many people that city outreach workers contact accept offers for housing?
About 37 percent, city spokesman Will Lemke said. That percentage is fairly consistent throughout the year.

Why don't homeless people move to shelters?
The city can't force people into shelters. In some cases, homeless campers told KIRO 7 they don't want to abide by shelter rules. Navigation Team member say there are a number of reasons people don't accept shelter: how strict shelter rules are, not wanting to share space with others, not wanting to be seperated from a significant other, pets, belongings, or their street friends.

Does the city ensure that unsanctioned campers won't return to a site that was previously cleared? 
There have been multiple cases where unsanctioned campers have returned to a site the same week it was cleared. When that happens, the removal process restarts, following the city policy revised in 2017. Property owners, including the city and state departments of transportation have tried to block encampments using various types of fencing and walls. But city staff acknowledge that camps being repopulated is likely to continue.

How much garbage and waste has been removed through city cleanups?
In 2017, city crews removed 6,410,000 pounds of garbage and waste from unmanaged encampments. In June, the city said crews removed 294,000 pounds of garbage and waste in 2018. Seattle Public Utilities also started a pilot program in January 2017 to collect trash from unsanctioned encampments and areas where there's frequent RV camping. As of June 2018, SPU collected nearly 500,000 pounds of trash -- roughly 27,800 pounds monthly, according to city data. [Editor's note: The 2018 number originally listed here was incorrect. There were 294,000 pounds removed.]

How many syringes have been collected by the Seattle Public Utilities through complaints and public disposal boxes?
There were 70,934 syringes collected since the program began in August 2016, the city reported in June 2018. That number is separate from the syringes found and counted in other parts of King County. Follow this link to read about problems with syringes in King County parks and other public areas.

How much trash has Seattle staff collected from right of ways?
In May 2018 alone -- the month for when data is available after a city pilot program started that month -- the city collected 29,000 pounds of trash from roads, sidewalks and the public right-of-ways adjacent to RVs.

Are all city shelters at capacity every night?
No. Each night shelter capacity is at 93 percent, according to notes from Mayor Jenny Durkan's office in June 2018. That number includes basic shelters, enhanced shelters and sanctioned encampments.

How many shelter beds are there in Seattle?
The city's Human Services Department lists 1,185 enhanced shelter beds in Seattle in June 2018 and 588 basic beds -- done with a $15.5 million investment. In the first quarter of this year, a combined 24.3 percent of people moved to permanent housing.

The 2017 numbers list 749 enhanced shelter beds and 964 basic beds with an investment of $14.1 million and a 21.8 percent transition rate to permanent housing in the first quarter.

When property from an encampment is stored by the city, where does it go? 
The city stores belongings for 70 days at no cost, though the city will work with people and occasionally extend that deadline if they're in the process of finding a shelter. The belongings are stored in covered united on city property at 4200 Airport Way South. People wanting to see if their belongings are there can call 206-459-9949.

How many belongs are stored?
The most recent numbers available are for 2017. That year, the city collected 702 plastic containers with a 55-gallon volume.

What percentage of those were returned to people? 
Only 14 percent of the belongings collected in 2017 were returned, Navigation Team manager August Drake-Ericson said.

Is the storage program new?
No, but the centralized storage location is the element upgraded in 2017. Three city departments -- Parks and Recreation, the Department of Transportation and Seattle Public Utilities -- were all storing belongings at different locations starting in 2007. The city changed to the central location in 2017 to try and make it easier for people to locate their belongings.

Do they check for stolen items?
Yes, Drake-Ericson said. Police officers are part of the Navigation Team, and once belongings are moved to the city storage location those Navigation Team officers check serial numbers on items such as bikes to see if they're reported as stolen. There have been cases of stolen items being returned to their owners, Drake-Ericson said. But the number of items found to be stolen is not a statistic tracked by the Navigation Team.

How much is the city investing in tiny villages for people experiencing homelessness?
In 2017 the city spent $1.5 million on city-permitted villages. That increased to $2.3 million in 2018. Of the people served during the first quarter of each year, 18 percent transitioned to permanent housing in 2017 and 17 percent moved to permanent housing in 2018.

Are other cities busing homeless people to Seattle? 
Homeless people in Seattle have told KIRO 7 that's the case, but there is not a way to verify each of the claims. Records are in multiple cities and counties, and because some programs are not subject to public records requests the extent of the problem is unclear. But the problem has been well documented in other cities, including San Diego.

Does Seattle or King County have a program for busing homeless people to cities where a relative will care for them? 
Seattle and King County do not run their own program. But Seattle contracts with Evergreen Treatment Services, which has offered bus or plane tickets in a few cases, according to city staff. But officials have not given a number or people transported out of the county.

How many money did the City of Seattle spend on the homeless in 2017?
The city spent $54 million on homelessness in Seattle. The amount budgeted -- and the number of homeless -- increased in 2018. See additional details on the 2017 spending here.

How much does the City of Seattle plan to spend on homelessness in 2018?
The plan is to spend $78 million. That includes $30.9 million for shelter, hygiene and outreach; $22.4 million for "permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing and diversion; $6.5 million for "prevention;" $5.9 million for "access to services;" $5.3 million for operations; $5,668,684 for cleanup and sanitization services; $1,865,049 for Seattle police services and $510,000 for the Department of Education and Early Learning and the Seattle Public Library.

How many people receive city services in the first three months of 2018 compared to the first three months of 2017? 
The city counts "households served by program type" for the Q1 numbers. For all services -- ranging from outreach and engagement to transitional housing -- 17,903 households were served in Q1 of 2017. The same tally in the first three months of 2018 counted 19,311 households. However, this is not solely the number of people reached specifically by the Navigation Team that handles encampments.

City notes indicate that during Q1 of 2017, 4,793 households were served in “encampment, basic, (and) encampment shelter.” That number increased by 23.5 percent in Q1 of 2018 to 5,921 households.

How much is the city spending on preventing homelessness or helping people try to maintain housing? 
In 2018, Seattle is investing $6.5 million on preventing homelessness by helping people maintain housing. That budget increased from $3 million in 2017. In the first quarter of 2018, the city reported helping 678 people with 151 exiting to permanent housing.

What happened with the head tax that Durkan and the City Council passed?
The $275 head tax on new jobs was passed 9-0 by the City Council on May 14, 2018. It was repealed June 12 after more than 45,000 Seattle residents signed a petition to repeal it. Follow this link for a timeline on the Seattle head tax and repeal.

What additional funding has been allocated for homeless services in 2018?
In February, Durkan signed a "Building a Housing for All" legislation would invested $6.3 million "in a Bridge Housing Investment Strategy to increase our capacity to quickly and cost-effectively move people experiencing homelessness to safety," to notes from Durkan's office." It also invested $2 million to maximize housing options for those on the verge of the homelessness by piloting a Seattle Rental Housing Assistance Pilot Program." The legislation also allocated $3.2 million for affordable housing.

What was included in the June 2018 expansion of shelter beds under Durkan's plan? 
That proposal, which passed the city council June 18, was set to increase the number of bridge housing and shelter units by 25 percent in the following three months. That was expected to serve an additional 525 people nightly. That number includes 180 people reached through expanded shelter capacity; a master lease at Haddon Hall to create bridge housing for 100 people; expanding city hall's basic shelter to serve 120 people nightly; 54 tiny homes in South Lake Union and 30 new tiny homes at 18th Avenue and East Yesler Way. Durkan's plan also provided funding for 163 basic shelter beds originally expected to close at the end of May. This expansion is only funded through the end of 2018 unless additional money is allocated.

What is Seattle's public shelter capacity?
Capacity was expected to reach 2,532 by the end of summer 2018, which is an increase from 2,032 in May.

How many transition housing units does the city of Seattle provide?
There were 833 units in 2017 and 717 units in 2018. The city invested $3 million annually in 2017 and 2018. In the first quarter of 2017, 775 people were served and 56 percent left to permanent housing. The number if the first quarter of 2018 was 59 percent exiting to permanent housing.

How does the number of homeless in Seattle compare to other cities?
Boston, Massachusetts, and Charlotte, North Carolina, are similarly sized cities to Seattle and use methods similar to King County's one-night count.

Charlotte had roughly 860,000 people in 2017 compared to Seattle’s estimated 725,000 people. Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, had roughly 1,077,000 people. King County, which includes Seattle, has roughly 2,189,000 people.

In 2017, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County count had 1,476 "people experiencing homelessness," and 215 of those were unsheltered. The remainder were in transitional housing or emergency shelters. Seattle-King County had had a number 688 percent higher than Charlotte-Mecklenburg County in 2017 with 11,643 "people experiencing homelessness." Of that number, 5,485 people were in encampments.

Boston counted 6,146 homeless people in January 2018 -- 2,293 less people than the King County overall counted in the same month. (Boston's number decreased from 6,327 in 2017.)

How does the city define "affordable housing?" 
Housing is considered affordable to a household if it costs no more than 30% of a household's income, and it's typically shown as a percentage of the area median income. Seattle follows the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, published in July 2015 by a group of leaders selected by then Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council. Most programs proposed as part of the city's agenda serve households with incomes up to 30 percent, 60 percent, or 80 percent of area median income. For example, a household of three people with an income of $25,920 would be at 30 percent of the area median income. Follow this link to see additional affordable housing details and a Q-and-A from the city.

What's the city's plan for affordable housing between 2018-2021? 
From 2018-2021, the city plans to add 2,500 city-funded affordable rental housing units and more than 1,900 multifamily property tax-exempted units. Those plans would increase the affordable housing unit total to 33,600 by 2021.

How do I contact Durkan or the Seattle CIty Council?

Mayor Jenny Durkan, 206-684-4000,

District 1: Lisa Herbold, 206-684-8803,

District 2: Bruce Harrell, 206-684-8804,

District 3: Kshama Sawant, 206-684-8016,

District 4:  Rob Johnson, 206-684-8808,

District 5: Debora Juarez, 206-684-8805,

District 6: Mike O'Brien, 206-684-8800,

District 7: Sally Bagshaw, 206-684-8801,

Position 8: Teresa Mosqueda, 206-684-8806,

Position 9: Lorena Gonzalez, 206-684-8802,

On June 22, KIRO 7 took Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to an unsanctioned homeless camp in the 2800 block of Third Avenue for months to get her reaction. Watch Durkan's homeless camp tour and response here.

On June 14, KIRO 7 fact checked statements made on homelessness by City Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold. Follow this link to see that Seattle City Council fact check.

KIRO 7 Executive Producer Nathan Wilson contributed to this report.

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