Doug McKeehen steps off the sidewalk and into the notched dirt steps of the path heading up Queen Anne Hill. We brush past the laurel; ivy fringes the mud beneath our feet. A right bend, then a left, and at the edge of a clearing not 50 feet from Aurora Avenue, we're standing outside the tarp-covered structure that is a person's only home.
"Hello, this is Doug," McKeehen yells. Everything's quiet. The city is coming again soon to clear the area out, he yells. Still nothing. McKeehen works up the street at the Aloha Inn, a transitional housing program for homeless adults; he's gotten to know some of the greenbelt's residents.
"This gentleman had his stuff taken," says McKeehen. "He came back the next day."
We turn around and sidehill south, past a bare bit of ground. Bits of paper and plastic sheeting lie among the moldering leaves. There is plenty of cast-off stuff - shoes, bits of plywood, now-useless tents - in this bit of green space overrun by holly, ivy, laurel, and blackberry. But a tent-sized square of level ground 10 feet from the intact structure is bare. "They called this a cleanup," says McKeehen of the August and September operations by prison work crews.
We skirt a felled tree covered in ivy and come to another spot of level ground, a laminated sheet of paper taped to a nearby trunk. Private property must be cleared off the city's land, it says. Though it's been recently put up, the sheet's lettering looks as though it was made on duplicating machines that disappeared with the advent of the photocopier. For help, it says, call the Community Service Officers.
"Call that number," says McKeehen. I pull out my cell phone, dial, and get the three rising tones signalling a disconnected line. "Your call could not be completed as dialed.." I hang up. The Department of Corrections is getting busier in Seattle these days, sending out more work crews to do the kind of thing McKeehen is pointing out: sweeping areas free of any material on the grounds, including litter, tarps, tents, and their contents. Correctional crew manager Jim Thorburn is "starting to get a few more requests" from the Parks Department.
Meanwhile, staff in the Mayor's Office and the Human Services Department are preparing a new set of rules for these clearances. The rules could revive an outreach process that has been in disarray for five years, but also make the forced eviction of people from campsites a regular and centrally coordinated procedure.
The changes are spurred on by what Mayor's staffer Julien Loh described in a May email as a "proactive" approach to encampments - a new way of sweeping away visible homelessness before a concerned citizen calls it in.
In that email, Loh wrote that Mayor Greg Nickels or Department of Neighborhoods coordinator Jordan Royer used to call a sweep in a particular area when they thought it necessary. Now, he wrote, at 10 sites identified by Seattle Police, "cleanups" are "occurring monthly, in a proactive manner."
The last recorded rules issued by the city for such operations, created in 1996, stated that sweeps would be initiated at the request of citizens. The old rules also promised that Community Service Officers - sworn members of the force trained in helping the homeless - would be present.
That ceased in 2002 when city budget cuts eliminated the CSOs. Since then, says Human Services Deparment community services division director Al Poole, beyond posting the notices with the outdated phone number, in-person outreach has consisted of whatever he or his staff can do.
"If we get a coordinated approach to cleanup, I stand a much better chance of getting a coordinated approach to outreach and services," says Poole.
That would take money that's not currently in the budget. Homeless advocates are pushing the City Council to spend $975,000 of the city's $70 million surplus on homeless services; the council will finalize the budget by year-end.
A different approach might de-escalate sweeps at the city's greenbelts, where during an Aug. 7-8 operation, Aloha Inn staffer Dan Wise reports, police present during the sweep threatened to arrest people trying to retrieve their belongings.
Marilyn Littlejohn, the mayor's senior policy advisor on human services issues, says she doubts that the city will suspend these sweeps while it rethinks how they're done.
"We've got some protocol in place," she says. "What we need is to implement the new one quickly." McKeehen is part of a group of advocates trying to influence the new protocol. The sweeps, he says, make neither moral nor fiscal sense to him. And as someone who's lived outside, he knows the the psychological damage of losing your gear.
"If you talk to someone who this happened to 10 or 15 years ago, their eyes change. They're haunted," he says. "They're just haunted by going into their campsite and having everything destroyed."