How Responsible is the Local Government for Homelessness?

Mandel D Scott

Personal Statement

My name is Mandel Scott and I’m enrolled in the Digital Gaming and Interactive Media program here at LWTech. I am from Seattle, Washington and I wanted this essay to focus on the unhoused community in the area and look at how responsible, if at all, the local government is for their living conditions.

On February 20th, 2022, Seattle city crew members arrived on 4th Avenue to clear the tents that covered the sidewalk just across the street from Seattle City Hall. Protestors arrived and stood together –arms locked– to prevent the city crew members from proceeding with their encampment sweep. Their efforts succeeded as the city crews left shortly after clearing only a few spaces. However, two weeks later city crews, with the help of the Seattle Police Department, cleared the encampment. According to King 5 News, there were 16 unhoused people present, seven of whom were referred to shelters and nine of whom left voluntarily (Miller). While this was just one of many encampment sweeps that have taken place over the last few years, there’s something extremely poignant about an encampment sweep that took place across the street from Seattle City Hall. It’s as if the location of the encampment itself was a cry for help. A cry that appeared to be answered with callous capitalism.

It’s important to note the process behind encampment sweeps and how they are handled. The City of Seattle website breaks down the Encampment Cleanup Process into seven cateories: Outreach, Reporting, Assessment, Prioritization, Scheduling, Notice, and Storage (United States, City of Seattle, Unauthorized Encampments). Outreach is a step where the Navigation Team, a group comprised of Seattle Police officers and city employees, offer alternative shelter options. According to the City of Seattle website, this takes place both after a cleanup notice has been posted, and on the day of the sweeps. Reporting references how the city learns about encampments. Reporting takes place through the following methods: calls to the Customer Service Bureau, reports filed online through the city’s Service Request Form and/or The Find It, Fix It app, and the Seattle Police Department and other city employees who discover people camping on city property. Assessment is a step that details how city staff will visit the site of an encampment to analyze the area. Prioritization describes how the city determines which encampments get swept first. Health, safety, criminal behavior, and obstruction of public property are considered as the main factors that determine cleanup priority. Scheduling will then take effect for encampment sweeps based on their priority. Notice is regarding how the Navigation Team is to provide 72-hour notice of an upcoming sweep. Lastly, city staff can offer storage for personal belongings before or during an encampment sweep.

Seattle-based community organizers Dae Shik Kim and Guy Oron went into detail on some of the sordid details behind encampment sweeps: “During sweeps, city employees can destroy tents, throw away belongings the city doesn’t want or is unable to store, issue parking tickets or even impound vehicles that unhoused individuals use for shelter, and install hostile architecture that keeps people from coming back to sleep on benches in city parks.” The authors explain how the 72-hour notice that the Navigation Team is mandated to provide doesn’t always take place and states that if an encampment is considered to be a consistent problem that the city is not required to give any notice or provide any outreach. City records indicated that the Navigation Team only provided 72 hours of notice to encampment residents for only 81 of the 1,192 sweeps that took place in the year 2019 (Kim and Oron).  It’s bad enough that there’s a systemic failure taking place with these encampment sweeps, but these sweeps taking place in the middle of a pandemic without suitable and consistent shelter options is especially egregious.

A fair question to ask would be, “why don’t city officials do more to address homelessness?” One reason why is because many mayors nationwide don’t believe they have the power to address the matter. According to a nationwide survey of mayors conducted by Boston University’s Initiative On Cities in conjunction with Community Solutions, 73% of mayors believe that they are held accountable by their constituents for their response to the homeless crisis, but 81% do not believe they have a lot of control over the issue (Abraham, Sec. 1). The primary reasons for this are a lack of funding as well as public opposition to new affordable housing. Jake Maguire of Community Solutions believes that the perceived lack of power leads to police intervention: “What you see there is mayors defaulting to something they’re actually in charge of, which is the police force. Most mayors are not in charge of the production of affordable housing, they’re not in charge of the federal housing voucher supply that comes down to their community.” (Quoted in Abraham, Sec. 2). Police presence is an insufficient answer to the steadily growing problem of homelessness and it can be argued that police only exacerbate things for the unhoused population.

On December 18th, 2020, an encampment sweep that took place at Cal Anderson Park turned violent when protesters threw rocks at Seattle Police officers who came for a cleanup. The Police then responded with rubber bullets and flash bang grenades (Martin). With tensions still mounting from the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, the unhoused population was then caught in the middle an ongoing feud between protesters and police. The ensuing chaos resulted in over 20 arrests and tens of people displaced with nowhere to go. There’s a duality that presents itself when it comes to encampment sweeps. With inconsistent shelter options, the unhoused are simply displaced instead of being provided with the help that they need, but does that mean that people should have to just accept the health and safety problems that are a byproduct of the encampments? What exactly is the solution?

A common school of thought is that homelessness in the Seattle area can be attributed in large part to corporations such as Amazon and Microsoft, lack of rent control, and a rapidly rising housing market. While that’s true, there appears to be more to the problem than meets the eye. According to a King County point-in-time study from 2018, only six percent of unhoused people surveyed stated an inability to afford a rent increase as the reason for their situation. The study suggested domestic violence, incarceration, mental illness, family conflict, medical conditions, breakups, eviction, addiction, and job loss as bigger factors than rent increases (Rufo, par. 5). The City of Seattle’s data states that more than half of the unhoused population comes from outside the city limits (Rufo, par. 12). There’s also city data that suggests that up to 63% of the unhoused population refuse shelter when offered by the Navigation Teams (Rufo, par. 13). It paints a sobering picture, especially when it’s taken into consideration that nearly half of the unhoused people at the 4th Avenue sweep left voluntarily instead of being referred to a shelter.

How does a city go about tackling a problem that’s so multilayered? Perhaps the most common argument is to defund the police but that may present its own set of issues. The Seattle Police Department has suffered budget cuts dating back to 2020 where it was $401.8 million dollars to now, where the city council approved a new SPD budget of $355.5 million dollars (Mutasa). Even despite those budget cuts, there hasn’t been an improvement for the unhoused community in the City of Seattle. It appears that the status quo will continue under Bruce Harrell, who was recently appointed City Mayor. I think that homelessness itself is so drastically complex that the issue can’t be pinned solely on the local government – but I absolutely believe that they drastically compound the problem. Allocating more funds would be a huge benefit to the matter and would be a great start towards solving this issue. Perhaps what would be just as valuable to fixing things is compassion. Something we seem to lack across the board when you consider the state of the world.

Works Cited

Abraham, Roshan. “Amid Calls to Defund the Police, Many Mayors are Still Relying on Cops to Address Homelessness.” Next, Jan 27, 2022. ProQuest,

City of Seattle, United States. “Unauthorized Encampments.” Unauthorized Encampments – Homelessness, 3 Apr. 2017, 

Kim, Dae Shik, and Guy Oron. “Seattle Destroyed Homeless Encampments as the Pandemic Raged.” The Nation, 4 Apr. 2020,

Martin, Casey. “How the Cal Anderson Sweep Went down – and Why It’s so Contentious.” KUOW, 22 Dec. 2020,

Miller, Cody. “Seattle Crews Clear Homeless Encampment across from City Hall in Downtown.” king5.Com, 9 Mar. 2022,

Mutasa, Tammy. “Seattle Police Budget Shrinks after City Council’s Final Approval.” KOMO, KOMO, 23 Nov. 2021,

Rufo, Christopher F. “Seattle under Siege.” City Journal, 26 July 2019, 


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The Lion's Pride, Vol. 15 Copyright © 2022 by Mandel D Scott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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