“Like a doctor we cannot just treat the symptom, you have to treat the underlying cause of the disease,” said Thanh Nga (Tanya) Nguyen, owner of ChúMinh Tofu in Little Saigon.
“When you sweep people, do we try to find places for people to live? Otherwise we are just sweeping people like garbage. People will try to live somewhere else and we start the problems all over again.”
Maintaining an illusion of compassion
Despite promises to decrease homelessness and crime with compassion and “immediately create more efficient and effective solutions” with Partnership Zero, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s response has been anything but compassionate or effective. Partnership Zero is a coalition of businesses, nonprofits and city and county entities promising to “dramatically reduce unsheltered homelessness.” According to the Mayor’s Office, Partnership Zero is currently building a dashboard, and collecting “real-time information about who is experiencing unsheltered homelessness.” However, in saying one thing in Partnership Zero, the City does another. The City has swept at least 85 encampments since April, under the Mayor’s orders – amounting to a sweep almost every other day. As displacements continue to come faster and harder than ever before, it’s clear that the City’s method of carrying out Partnership Zero’s goal to “dramatically reduce unsheltered homelessness” has simply been to reduce the presence of people living in public spaces, period. The promise of Partnership Zero allows the Mayor’s Office to defer responsibility for housing and human services to Partnership Zero, instead of staying accountable to providing housing.
As of 2022, 170 people currently wait in temporary shelters with no availability for housing. Shelters and housing themselves have strict criteria based on time spent living outside, substance use status, behavioral health status, contact information, and identification. This makes it impossible for many people to enter shelter.
Having seen some of the shelters the City offers, many of them are lacking accommodations and feel more like a prison. We have spoken to some of our unhoused guests and heard stories of shelters: people do not have their own rooms, it is crowded, loud, and no one has personal space. Women have reported experiencing harassment.
Women and men do not have any choice for separate accommodations. People do not feel safe in many shelters offered by the City.
Cruel and unusual punishment
Sweeps violate privacy rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment for people to “be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.” They violate the Eighth Amendment’s “prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment” for punishing people living outside when there is “no reasonable alternative but to do so.”
Sweeps force people to leave everything they have, over and over again, packing only what they can into suitcases. People lose their identification documents, medications, and warm clothing. Within encampments, people can build “a sense of safety, security, community, autonomy, stability” and “lessen health care burdens.” Sweeping these communities does not reduce homelessness; it only pushes people out. Sweeps only make it harder for people to find jobs, education, and services. They make it harder to link up with case management services and existing outreach programs in REACH, JustCare, and HOPE – further blunting the City’s claims for compassion.
Criminalizing poor and unhoused people
In addition to a barrage of brutal sweeps, Harrell has rolled out a draconian “arrest first, services later” strategy. By using criminalization as a front line response to the housing crisis, Harrell continues a war on the poor, punishing those already experiencing the most violence while failing to address the roots of the problem. In Washington State, the income gap between rich and poor widens with rate of arrests and punishment. Warrants and misdemeanors create more barriers for people to access services, and the most warrants are issued for “standing, sitting, or sleeping in public places.” Fines range from $250 to $5000, where people who are unable to pay receive even more criminal penalties, further punishing low-income and people living in public spaces. In Seattle, “move along warnings” are not recorded, and serve as a threat for further punishment and stigmatization. The options become fewer and far between, with either: jail, the emergency room, or surviving in public. As a result, jails and prisons have become the nation’s largest houseless shelter. In Seattle, where police are nine times more likely to stop Black and Native people, we can also see how the criminalization of poverty and racism are inseparable.
Creating more trauma and suffering in our neighborhoods
Lack of housing, hunger, thirst, addiction, and trauma are all worsened by sweeps – and push people beyond their limits. They exacerbate the conditions that lead to isolation, and therefore often act as the the origins of physical and emotional suffering that become motivation for drug use. They cause cascading effects of emotional distress, which worsen the chronic pain people experience while in withdrawal, and thus can motivate people to alleviate that pain by any means necessary. The pain can be unrelenting. Longtime and repeated exposures of opioids can cause the brain to no longer feel pleasure, and only pain, where drugs become the only option to relieve that pain.
We need to talk about drug use, whether people are housed or unhoused, without stigma. Drug Use Solidarity Team (DUST) points out, drugs themselves are not the problem — the problem are the social and economic systems and institutions that traumatize poor people and thus create the conditions in which drugs become a necessary tool of “trauma management.” Housing insecurity can be one of these traumatic experiences by itself. Sweeps, displacement, criminalization, and isolation compound this even further.
The impacts of budget cuts on the opioid crisis in Washington State point to a critical need for harm reduction and other supportive resources for drug users. An epidemic of prescription drug overdoses from the 2000s cascaded during the 2008 economic crises when Washington State budget cuts slashed detox and treatment beds, forcing people from prescriptions to heroin and now fentanyl. As a result, from 2015-2017, 30,000 people needing anti-addiction medication did not receive it. In 2019, over half of people needing opioid treatment did not receive it. When people stop smoking opioids, they get sick and suffer from withdrawal. Methadone, a drug, helps treat dependence. However, people are required by law to go to a federally certified clinic every day for at least a year or longer to access methadone. With support services for drug users already so lacking, sweeps and criminalization only disrupt treatment and further inflict trauma on those who use drugs and live in public spaces.
To nurture, instead of punish
We cannot continue harassing and punishing people for conducting life-sustaining activities in public. We need alliances built on harm reduction approaches, clinical insight, and de-escalation in tandem with services.
Seattle already has one such alliance in the U-District Partnership. Businesses in the U District pool their resources to fund a full-time Outreach Care Coordinator dedicated to building “relationships with members of our community who need addiction and mental health services and connect them to services in the community.” Instead of calling police or 911, businesses can call upon the Outreach Care Coordinator, a person that builds relationships through support and seeing to it that people’s basic needs are met. People want to go to people they can trust and have been in the neighborhood a long time. A community’s strength relies on its network, its connections, and trust and relationships. This is one building block we can support in building a network of love and care as an alternative model to punishment.
Safe consumption spaces are another policy solution that can repair, instead of harm. When people use safe consumption spaces, people are less likely to overdose, use less, and dispose more needles. New York opened their first safe injection site in November, saving on 911 calls and healthcare expenses. Safe consumption sites were also recommended by the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force in 2017 as a key strategy to reduce overdose. If we can believe that people can be resilient and bounce back from their challenges, then we can create more pathways for healing and recovery that don’t involve going to the emergency room, and don’t involve strict criteria for housing and treatment.
We need to build trust, understanding, and offer choices for people – housed and unhoused – to improve their quality of life. It is futile to attempt to motivate through coercion. We cannot police our way out of this problem. Fear and punishment do not help move people indoors.
A dialogue for love and support in ending the sweeps
Harrell’s administration has used the real frustration and struggles of Little Saigon and CID community members and businesses to justify sweeps and the criminalization of poverty. However, Thana Nga (Tanya) Nguyen’s words at ChuMinh Tofu in Little Saigon remind us: we don’t want to recreate the same problems again and again. Sweeps only create more violence and destruction, misuse resources, and push people around without helping them. Lack of housing, hunger, thirst, addiction, and trauma are all worsened by sweeps – and push people beyond their limits. If we want to be safe and feel safe, and if we want to truly take a compassionate and effective approach to resolving the housing crisis, we should recognize that desperation is what drives people to violence. Survival should not be a crime, and punishing survival will not treat the “cause of the disease”.
We know that it is not sustainable for small businesses to manage unhoused community members ourselves.
So how can we address the root problem? How can we create a community that attends to the needs of everyone? How can we envision and build a safety, led by a vision of trust and hope, rather than fear?
In light of worsening conditions for people in Little Saigon and the Chinatown-International District. Our community coalition requests Seattle officials to stop targeting our neighborhood through the criminalization of poverty and encampment sweeps under the guise of public safety. We will send our requests to the Seattle Mayor and Councilmembers.
The requests include placing a moratorium on sweeps and redirecting funding into these areas:
- Maintaining sanitation and safety at current encampment sites
- Funding and resourcing community-based responses to public safety
- Long term housing options to mitigate the housing crisis
Read our letter with full details of our requests: tinyurl.com/Little-Saigon-CID-Statement
Sign the petition: tinyurl.com/PetitionSafetyNotSweeps
Visit our website to read full details of our requests: https://cidsafetynotsweeps.wixsite.com/home
Support the Solidarity Budget: https://www.seattlesolidaritybudget.com/calls-to-action
This series features three articles exploring encampment sweeps as a policy failure, the problems they create, and the call for real solutions in Little Saigon and the Chinatown-International District.
- Part 1: details first-hand accounts of sweeps as traumatic and violent events
- Part 2: discusses how sweeps worsen problems for housed and unhoused people, and how there are better solutions
- Part 3: calls for action against sweeps to improve the quality of life for everyone in Little Saigon and the Chinatown-International District
Johnny Mao and Alex Chuang are mutual aid organizers that operate out of ChuMinh Tofu in Little Saigon. We operate mutual aid on Sunday mornings 10:30-12:30 where everyone is welcome.
Nikki Chau contributed to this article.