Field of Dreams 2017 SPD by Matt Browning

[The following statement is written by a group of social workers and community organizers based in Seattle, WA]

It is a clear cliche to claim that homelessness is a topic of contention in Seattle. The city government has dedicated $5.9 billion1 to the issue by way of its infamous Navigation Team, a conglomerate of police, social workers and city clean up crews, as a way of “addressing” the issue. However, it is clear to everyone from NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) types to those concerned with the welfare of the homeless community, and the homeless community itself that the sweeps and the Navigation Team are serving no one’s needs appropriately and that the city itself is failing at eliminating homelessness. With that, and to the extent that we can, we will be providing a lens from which to understand this issue and some solutions.

In the interest of transparency, we’ll lay out our “credentials” ahead of everything. We’re not, nor have we ever been homeless. We’re not, nor have we ever been swept by the city of Seattle. Where we do have experience is in social work. Particularly, in social work as it relates to homelessness. That means that as part of our daily work lives, for at least 8 hours a day, for at least 5 days a week, we think about, witness the struggle of, and try to be a force for good in the lives of members of the homeless community. We do not see ourselves as martyrs, nor saints and nor do we speak for the homeless community. We speak only from the perspective of those who bear witness to the effects of injustice.

The Navigation Team and the Sweeps

This conglomerate of police, social workers, and city clean up crews was launched in February of 2017 with the intent to “provide outreach to people living unsheltered that is efficient and effective at moving people out of hazardous conditions and onto a path toward health, stability, and permanent housing.”2 The idea, insofar as we can understand it, was to provide the homeless community resources while city agencies, such as Parks and Recreation, provide the city maintenance aspect, e.g. trash removal, maintenance of green spaces, etc, and police…well, it’s unclear how police play a role in “providing outreach” or moving people onto a path toward “health, stability, and permanent housing.” It is very clear to those on the ground that the role of police is exactly the role police play in general: coercion. Police are present during sweeps as a very clear statement from the city, “comply or you will be made to comply”. We could point out that police are not equipped to “provide outreach” or to move people toward “health, stability, and permanent housing” due to various institutional factors (and we will below), but that would underscore the fact that on the ground, as an operation, the focus of the Navigation Team hasn’t been concerned with outreach, stability, or permanent housing, but displacement.

Sweeps are conducted by way of 72 hours notice of eviction. Encampments are served with eviction notices by the city of Seattle via postings on tents, trees, and anywhere else that might catch the eye of residents. The postings explain (in English and sometimes in Spanish) that the area is not a camping area, that the city will arrive by the date listed on the posting, and that should someone want emergency services they should contact the numbers listed. Usually, after an area is posted, a group of social workers will go to the encampment to offer emergency shelter to the residents. Never is permanent housing offered. The reason for this is that there simply isn’t any available low-income supportive housing in Seattle. This is no a big secret. Our mayor herself has said as much through easily accessible mediums, so it is difficult to understand why the city’s Navigation Team would cite permanent housing as one of it’s main reasons for existing, but we digress. When the 72 hours have been reached, the city lands on the encampment with garbage trucks, heavy machinery, clean-up crews, social workers and police. The clean up crews are there to remove trash and debris, as well as to tear down tents and structures of residents who leave them behind or who refuse to leave the area. Social workers are there to provide last minute access to emergency shelters and police are there to ensure residents leave the area via threat of arrest. Residents are then kicked out of the area, again under threat of arrest, and disperse throughout the city. The dispersion sometimes results in people pitching tents on sidewalks and sometimes it results in large encampments becoming even larger. This means that areas which were already struggling to, say, maintain cleanliness and avoid the eye of the Navigation Team fail to do so and the cycle repeats itself. 

If you didn’t find any portion of that description to be anywhere near “a path toward health, stability, and permanent housing”, it’s because it isn’t. The sweeps conducted by the navigation team only serve to traumatize an already scapegoated and maligned community by removing them from sight.

People of Color and the Sweeps

According to the latest demographic report completed by King County, 57% of the homeless population is composed of people of color3 with the numbers breaking down as follows, black 32%, indigenous 10%, Asian 4%, Pacific Islander 3%, multiple races 8% and Latinxs making up15% of the population. The reasons for our focus on the people of color making up the homeless population are simple: Colonialism and Racism.

This port city called Seattle is indigenous territory. Like many areas across Pacific Northwest, Seattle was colonized by white settlers supported by the U.S. government4 against which indigenous tribes fought5. These facts, taken alongside the historical injustices committed against Africans and their descendants, Latinxs, Pacific Islanders, Asians and those of mixed race6 create a lens with which to look at the sweeping of the homeless population which cannot be ignored. Seattle is a city mostly populated by whites (65.7% as per the census)7 in which the people that have historically been on the receiving end of some of the oldest injustices our country has to offer are now on the receiving end of a government institution dedicated to removing them from public sight for the crime of not owning a home. It is difficult to see this as anything less than an acceptable exercise in colonialism from our city government. A clear extension of those buried, horrendous values on which the city was “founded” and which we claim to have moved beyond.

The daily sweeping of a community made of mostly people of color appears so antiquated in its nature that it is difficult to call it “neo-colonialism”. The tools at use by Seattle’s government are the same as they were then-legal documents from a system already structured against them8 and the police, that oldest of institutions of colonial control. The outcomes too are the same-the traumatization of people of color, the objectification of human beings into things that must be cleaned up from the sight of the public, the ghettoification of communities of color and the removal of indigenous people from indigenous land.

A colonial entity such as a city government seems like quite the behemoth to tackle. At first glance there seems to be little that ordinary people can do to stand against it. Below we will make some suggestions as to what could be done. 

Facing The Beast

It would be absurd to expect the government of Seattle to actually move towards abolishing homelessness all on its own. A basic understanding of political and institutional power in our government informs us that governments do not respond to crises by doing the right thing. Government is pushed into justice by popular movements. Further, solutions exclusively created by those outside of the day to day struggle are bound to fail. We, as social workers, come face to face with the reality of homelessness, but we should not confuse that with first-hand experience. We should also not forget that, a lot of the time, our experience comes at the cost of occupying the role of an obstacle. This means that social workers should engage with homeless communities less as “service providers” and more as accomplices. We should organize radical democratic spaces for those in the homeless community to collectively decide what they want, how they want to receive it, and carry it out even if the cost is the job. We should organize spaces for social workers to listen to the homeless community about their problems with the system and strategize about how to carry out demands and let’s do this without the bureaucracy that plagues social work; without the endless “conversations” with those who are lining their pockets from the non-profit industrial complex.

As for those outside of social work, one would hope that understanding the colonial nature of current institutions should result in a sense of obligation to those who are homeless; particularly, if your privilege extends past having a roof over your head. There are things that can be done. Popular opposition to the sweeping of unhoused people should be a priority. The city has demonstrated that it has the capacity to mobilize institutions for large scale operations…it has just done so for egregious operations. Why not remove police from the Navigation Team and increase the number of social workers? If the intent of the Navigation Team is to “provide outreach to people living unsheltered…moving people out of hazardous conditions and onto a path toward health, stability, and permanent housing,” how are police, who are institutionally present to enforce compliance and arrest individuals refusing to comply, in any equipped to provide services for homeless communities? This isn’t a matter of police not receiving adequate training, it is a matter of institutional contradiction. If police are present as part of the Navigation Team why not have firefighters, or city planners, or judges, or budget officers? The answer is obvious and it equally applies to police. Services like outreach, forging a path toward health, stability, and permanent housing are roles for social workers, not police. Finally, stop the sweeps. Enough reason has been provided for this, so we will not restate it. However, there is an aspect of the operation that can be maintained: trash removal. Homeless communities, like any other community, require removal of garbage and debris from their living spaces. The city has already demonstrated that it can mobilize a large scale effort, why not direct that energy towards maintaining clean spaces for homeless communities while social workers provide the work of housing?

As we stated in the introduction, we are just social workers. We don’t claim to have all the answers; nor could we, since we’re not the unhoused community. What we do know is that those within these institutions of our city government have only the interests of their class in mind. As long as we keep our heads down we are being complicit.

  2. Review of Navigation Team 2018 Quarter 2 Report
  4. See, for example: The Treaty of Point Elliot
  5. See, for example The Battle of Seattle
  6. If these have to be listed we have bigger problems.
  8. See, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

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