Sanctioned Encampments a Success in Seattle

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A “street” in Othello Village, one of Seattle’s sanctioned encampments. Photo: Chris Block

Faced with a similar emergence of widespread homeless encampments as San Francisco, the City of Seattle responded, in part, by allowing – “sanctioning” –  a number of camps, so long as they secured sponsorship from a nonprofit organization, were time limited, with community noticing and engagement requirements. 

As previously reported by the View, Steve Walker, Seattle’s housing director, stated that sanctioned encampments “are a failure” and the municipality will be “expanding the program.” Walker clarified that the need to authorize these temporary communities – which typically incorporate the use of “tiny homes” – reflects a disappointing inability to provide sufficient stable housing, mental health and addiction services.  In the face of that reality, Walker insisted that authorized encampments were a necessary part of the continuum of opportunities for Seattle’s homeless.

According to the City of Seattle’s website, “For some unsheltered people, there are significant barriers to transitioning to indoor shelter. Authorized encampments offer a safer alternative that can help stabilize the person before transitioning indoors.”  Starting in 2015, Seattle opened three sanctioned encampments, each permitted for 12 months, with the potential to extend for another year.  Since then three more have joined them. 

A raised garden bed maintained by an Othello Village resident. Phot0: Chris Block

City and County of San Francisco officials aren’t convinced that authorized encampments are an effective policy tool.  “The City’s concern about sanctioned encampments is that the floor can become the ceiling, and that Navigation Centers provide a higher quality approach, particularly for very vulnerable clients,” said Sam Dodge, deputy director, San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. “But, we are following models like Seattle’s closely, and are always open to new approaches.”

Earlier this summer, the View visited five of the six City of Seattle- sanctioned communities.  The groups typically consist of roughly 50 residents who moved from the streets to 250 square foot structures, usually with electricity but no plumbing.  There’s also shared community space, bathrooms and kitchen facilities.  Three had been operating for more than a year; two were recently sited. The encampments are secured within a perimeter fence, with closed but unlocked gates.  They’re largely self-governed; residents have a shared responsibility for such activities as policing, keeping the community clean, and monitoring tenant behavior. Each has a council composed of camp residents, neighbors and local businesses. 

Strangers are greeted almost immediately by a resident taking their shift on security. Even unexpected guests are offered a tour, which in every case revealed a well-maintained camp.   The View’s observations were similar to those contained in a City of Seattle report that examined the initial three communities, which found that the camps had successfully served people who had been living on the streets, often in hazardous conditions.  The report noted that self-governance and case management had proved an effective combination, as measured by a number of factors: neighboring communities have responded positively, no significant increase in crime was prompted by the sites, and the self-managed governance structure offers residents a way to positively contribute to day-to-day operations and community engagement efforts.  Further, 26 percent of residents ultimately found permanent homes; 13 percent went to transitional housing.

Problems do occur, residents residents are sometimes removed and police are occasionally called.  But, most residents appear to benefit from the stable living situation. ”Tent Cities are a place where you can have a shower and a place to keep your stuff,” said Crystal, a resident and impromptu tour guide.  She explained that these elements, along with access to a stable home, provide a foundation for people to secure employment, and, ultimately, a better life.

Last July, 334 individuals were living in Seattle’s sanctioned encampments, including more than 25 children and a number of pets, at a cost of roughly $20 per night.  A San Francisco shelter costs about $32 a night; Navigation Centers cost $60 per night due largely to significant staffing levels.

Showers at Othello Village. Photo: Chris Block

Othello Village, located in South Seattle on land owned by the Low Income Housing Institute, will ultimately be developed as traditional affordable housing.  Last summer, 49 adults were living at the sanctioned camp on the property, including 16 women. Additionally, there were 14 children in 10 families, 6 couples and three pets. Matt, who was serving his eight hour a week security shift at the time of the View’s visit, lived there with his seven-year-old child.  He explained that after four or five months the required work and residents’ generally positive attitude convinced neighbors that the encampment was non-threatening.

Another resident, Jaime, fresh from cleaning the camp’s showers, offered a delicious snap pea that he’d grown in his raised bed garden. Jaime had previously lived in a studio, from which he was evicted when the owner sold the building.  Current rents were beyond his reach, but his case manager had told him that a studio he can afford may be available soon.