Encampment sweeps: What they are and the harm they cause 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023
Imagine if government agents came to your home with little or no warning and carted away everything you own, throwing away most or all of it, and providing only a phone number you can call to see if you can get back whatever the government agents didn’t throw out. For people living outdoors in Seattle and other cities across Washington, this horrifying scenario is too often a reality and has been for years. 
No matter what you call home, the Constitution applies to everybody. Unfortunately, cities and counties continue to pass laws that undermine basic human rights for people who are unhoused. Laws against encampments, storing property on public property, and trespassing cause people to be evicted from their dwellings and results in the destruction of their belongings. 
During the colder months, the effects of the sweeps are even more dire. Sweeps leave people without the meager means they have to keep warm and dry by taking away their clothing and homes in a time of year when surviving outside is already challenging enough. 
When government arbitrarily confiscates and destroys these essential, life-sustaining personal items, it wrongly makes it a crime for people to attempt to survive. People without houses have the same right to their property as people with houses.  

What are sweeps? 

A sweep, sometimes referred to by government agencies as a “clean up,” is the forced disbanding of encampments on public property and the removal of both unhoused individuals and their property from that area. Practices may vary between cities as to how much advance notice individuals are given before government comes to sweep their place of living and how personal belongings and property are seized and stored. Sweeps are costly and ineffective and make homelessness worse.  
In Seattle, for only some sweeps, the city posts notice telling the people sleeping there they have 72 hours to gather their belongings and move. The City classifies most sweeps as “obstructions” through a very broad definition of “obstruction,” and for which the City gives far less notice. City crews arrive to make the encampments and the people living in them disappear from the area.

The city often fails to properly store belongings collected from encampments and throws most of them away without storing them.  

What legal issues are at play? 

A lawsuit filed by ACLU-WA claims that the City of Seattle illegally seizes and destroys the homes and property of people who are unhoused without an opportunity to be heard, or a meaningful way to reclaim any property that was not destroyed.  
The lawsuit specifically argues that the City of Seattle’s use of its Encampment Abatement Program constitutes an illegal search, seizure, and destruction of personal property, violating Article 1, Section 7 of the Washington State Constitution. The program has effectively made it a crime to sit, sleep, or shelter oneself from the elements through a series of administrative rules and ordinances enforced by sweeping unhoused people, threatening to arrest them for criminal trespass, entering their tents and other living structures, and destroying the tents and the belongings kept there.     
The complaint asserts that the effects of these sweeps make it even more difficult for people living outside to move into permanent housing.    

Why sweeps of encampments have been found to be illegal  

Supporters of sweeps sometimes claim that advocates for unhoused people are trying to create a new right to camp or sleep in playgrounds and parks. The issue is really one about individuals’ rights to their own property, not where they can or can’t camp. This right to their belongings is a right they already possess and which cannot be ignored on account of their homelessness.   
Encampments are not only where unhoused people sleep but they also serve as a place to store their most important possessions. Tents, sleeping bags, medication, identification and legal documents and clothing are often temporarily left at encampment sites. When government indiscriminately throws away anything left at an encampment or fails to properly distinguish between trash and personal property, these all-important possessions may be lost forever.   
Everyone has the same property rights to their personal possessions regardless of the structure they live in. Courts across the country have ruled that the destruction of unhoused people’s property during clean ups is unconstitutional, both because property is destroyed without sufficient notice and because the destruction violates the basic right to not have your personal property unreasonably seized by the government. These property rights do not disappear just because the property is temporarily left unattended at an encampment. The government does not have the right to seize and destroy things in a temporarily empty house or apartment, or a parked, unattended car, for instance. Nor does it have the right to summarily destroy property stored in encampments and/or tents as governments do with people who are homeless.    

Sweeps aren’t just illegal and disruptive; they don’t work 

Time and time again, in cities in Washington and across the country, it has been shown that sweeps are ineffective at reducing homelessness. While cities move to develop sustainable, long-term solutions to the homelessness crisis, they must also abandon the inhumane policy of chasing the city’s unhoused population from place to place.  
A recent study looked at various contributing issues of homelessness, including mental illness and addiction, and looked at per capita rates of homelessness around the country. By looking at the rate of homelessness per 1,000 people, the study found communities with the highest housing costs had some of the highest rates of homelessness.  
What the cities all had in common is a lack of affordable housing. Cities should end the sweeps and start to pursue a variety of different strategies to effectively battle the housing crisis and give people the resources they need.