There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to the ongoing “cleanups” of the Seattle area’s many unsanctioned encampments. We don’t know how many there are. We don’t know how much tax money it costs to execute them. And we don’t know what, exactly, they’re cleaning up.
When the city of Seattle selects an encampment to clear, the occupants are notified with a piece of paper on each tent and in the area. The notice rarely offers more than a few days’ notice. In fact, according to findings by the American Civil Liberties Union as part of an ongoing lawsuit over encampment sweeps, the majority of sweeps were conducted with fewer than 72 hours notice, meaning the people who have been living in tents and other makeshift structures may return to nothing when they came back from work.
And good luck getting those items back.
A 2016 declaration from the Seattle Human Rights Commission stated that “the City and State have often discarded the personal property of encampment residents, including identification cards, critical medication and necessities of life, which residents may be unable to replace.”
The ACLU report found numbers to back that up. According to their findings, belongings — including clothing, sleeping bags, tents, bicycles, medications and other necessary personal items — were salvaged only 15 percent of the time.
Objects valued at more than $25 are supposed to be saved, as are those that seem important (like identification or photographs). However, anything deemed a “hazard” is immediately thrown away. If you think your stuff may have been saved, you can call the number on the posted notice.
“We’re talking about folks who don’t have cell phones, so the number that you post may not be one they could actually call, certainly not easily,” noted Councilmember Lorena González during a briefing on sweeps earlier this year.
If you do make the call, your things may still be long gone. “Even when property is stored for the purposes of return to encampment residents,” stated the Human Rights Commission, “it may be stored in facilities at a distance from residents, precluding access to the personal property.”
This difficulty in repossession has led to a lawsuit. The plaintiffs allege that it’s unconstitutional to take someone’s necessary belongings without offering a way to retrieve them. The City Council has become more interested in improving the situation, but, while the mayor’s office has been in flux, there’s been little movement.
In the meantime, the sweeps continue. Countless tents have been trashed, and people who had shelter one night have found themselves exposed to the elements the next.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice. View previous Access Denied columns.
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