Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes ofwebsite accessibilityProfessor calls Seattle homeless camp sweeps 'punitive' and short-sighted | KOMO
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Professor calls Seattle homeless camp sweeps 'punitive' and short-sighted

A homeless camp being removed from a local Seattle park.
A homeless camp being removed from a local Seattle park.
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Seattle cleared out another homeless camp near downtown Friday and while some neighbors welcomed the sweep, others said it only complicates the problem.

Too often people just get shuffled around and they can end up back on the streets even when they do accept shelter, according to a professor who researches homelessness.

The pace of encampment clearings is picking up under Mayor Bruce Harrell.

On Thursday, the mayor held a press conference to announce that months of outreach with those living at Woodland Park had paid off with more than 80 people accepting shelter.

However, it’s a different story with the sweep Friday at 6th Avenue and Cherry Street.

Of the nine people living at the camp, four turned down the shelter being offered but were forced out anyway.

“It ends up being really punitive in many different ways, besides just not necessarily having another place to go,” said Professor Josephine Ensign with University of Washington’s School of Nursing.

Ensign has written three books on homelessness, including her latest called “Skid Road: On the Frontier of Health and Homelessness in an American City.”

She is also a family nurse practitioner who routinely provides medical care to people living on the streets.

“Doing sweeps, a lot of people call it whack-a-mole,” Ensign said. “Where we do a sweep here, another encampment shows up."

Last month the city cleared a troubled homeless camp on Mary Avenue, behind a Safety in Crown Hill.

One tent has already returned. The professor said sweeps are short-term and short-sighted.

“A lot of people who experience homelessness have really significant trauma in their childhoods or in their past and this can be really retraumatizing,” Ensign said.

The mayor said the unprecedented number of shelter referrals at Woodland Park shows that public spaces can be cleared while still helping the vulnerable people living there. The professor said shelter referrals are a start but don't mean people will end up in housing.

“I think it's important for all of us to kind of push back on the statistics," she said.

The availability of shelter is a critical component in moving forward with a sweep. Seattle has about 2,800 shelter beds paid for with public dollars. Of those, 816 are set aside for the HOPE Team, which helps coordinate outreach at encampments. A spokesperson said there are typically anywhere from 7 to 10 beds available on any given night, though that number has been increasing recently.

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Throughout King County, emergency shelter beds are about 76 percent full on average, though that data comes from a single-night survey from the Point in Time count.

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