The city of Seattle on Tuesday began shutting down the sprawling homeless encampment where dozens of tents are set up along Spokane Street in SoDo.
The planned closure follows several weeks of outreach at the encampment, during which the city's Navigation Team worked to connect the homeless with support services, more permanent shelter, and places to store their personal belongings.
Signs posted along several blocks of Spokane Street warned residents that all personal items must be removed by September 12 at 9 a.m. Public health and safety hazards are cited as the reasons for the closure, which comes less than a month after a deadly shooting at the encampment.
At least two protesters were arrested for trespassing, a misdemeanor.
The closure was specifically planned to coincide with the opening of a new, low-barrier shelter. The 100-bed shelter is called Compass at First Presbyterian, and is operated by Compass Housing Alliance. It's located inside Seattle First Presbyterian Church at 1013 8th Avenue.
Fifty of the shelter's beds have been set aside for use by the Navigation Team, to assist people being moved out of the Spokane Street encampment.
"We're doing something different. That's what I want people to see," said Robert Taylor, who is the Program Coordinator for Compass at First Presbyterian. "Give us an opportunity."
Taylor is hoping the 24-hour, low-barrier aspects of the new shelter might seem appealing to someone who has avoided traditional shelters in the past.
"You've got people with pets and possessions that they don't want to let go of. And many, if not most shelters, don't allow pets or don't allow heterosexual couples. So the couples will have a choice to make: to separate, one person stays in a shelter and the other person stays in a vehicle. Or one goes to a woman's shelter. So there's a lot of limitations, which this shelter and this program is hopefully going to bridge."
It's a challenge that outreach workers on the city's Navigation Team know all too well. When dealing with someone who has lived on the streets for years, convincing them to go to a shelter is no easy sell.
KING 5 asked several people living at the Spokane Street encampment why they prefer to sleep in a tent rather than a shelter.
"The rules and regulations - they basically shove you around the way they want to," said Will Ross, who has been homeless for years. "They tell you what to do, when to do it."
Others cited bed bugs as a reason they stay away from shelters. Others said it's just too many people staying in too small of a space.
"If you feel like a shelter is the answer, whoever feels that way, I challenge you to go and stay at a shelter for as long as I would have to be there. Then you'll see why we choose to live under a bridge," said another Spokane Street resident. "Packing people in like sardines is not the answer. That's a recipe for disaster. Trust me, I've lived with these people."
On Monday, the head of the city's navigation team said a lot of people are waiting until the last minute to pack up their belongings and leave the Spokane Street encampment. Sergeant Eric Zerr said they were able to successfully refer five people to Compass at First Presbyterian on Monday, and considered that a step in the right direction.
"I've watched a lot of people turn down good paying overnight jobs because they didn't have any place they could get rest during the day. This breaks that cycle," said Taylor. "Come introduce yourself. Just take a look and get a feel for what it's like here."
The Navigation Team will begin closing the Spokane Street encampment at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. Field coordinators will be there to help provide storage for personal belongings. Other city crews will work to remove garbage and debris once campers have been moved out of an area.
The closure will be done in sections, and is expected to take most of the week to complete. Once each section is cleared out, the city will install a mix of temporary and permanent fencing along the Spokane Street corridor.
The camp's shutdown and closure is intended to be permanent.
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