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Concern over Use of Prisoners to Clear Homeless Camps in Washington, Oregon

by Lonnie Burton

In November 2016, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) in Seattle, Washington adopted a resolution calling on the city to stop using state Department of Corrections (DOC) work crews to clean up homeless encampments. HRC’s announcement came just two months after a federal judge in nearby Tacoma found Clark County officials liable for illegally destroying the property of homeless people during similar sweeps conducted between 2012 and 2014.

“Using one disenfranchised community to displace and disrupt the lives of another raises serious moral issues,” HRC said in a statement.

The Human Rights Commission – a group with only advisory authority whose members are appointed by the city council and mayor – decried DOC prisoner work crews as a “widely considered ... vestige of slavery,” and voiced concerns over the ethical implications involved.

“By employing DOC labor rather than city employees, the city is outsourcing an essential government function (with constitutional implications) to workers who are neither fairly compensated nor directly accountable to the municipality,” HRC stated.

Seattle has used prisoner work crews for many tasks over the past 23 years, according to DOC spokesman Jeremy Barclay. Under an agreement between the city and Seattle Public Utilities, prisoners clear out illegal dumping sites, added city spokeswoman Julie Moore.

It is that latter work which includes cleaning up homeless camps. But Seattle began to restrict that practice in the summer of 2016, ending it completely in October of that year, Moore said – a month before the HRC adopted its resolution.

Seattle now contracts with two companies, Cascadia Cleaning & Removal and Belfor Property Restoration, for clearing out homeless encampments. But first, city workers visit the camp to inspect items found there and decide what can and cannot be thrown away. At that point the contractors arrive to deal with the material to be discarded. The rest – the personal property of homeless people – is left for them at the camp site.

In addition to the ruling in the Clark County litigation, a 2015 U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) court filing explains why the city has taken that approach. In the filing, made in a lawsuit against an anti-camping ordinance in Boise, Idaho, DOJ attorneys warned that if “a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”

But conducting sweeps at homeless camps remains a controversial practice, with officials across the U.S. trying to deal with increased homelessness and accompanying health concerns. The ACLU, joining other advocates for the homeless, has filed state and federal lawsuits to stop sweeps in cities such as Los Angeles, Honolulu and Denver.

“It’s important to remember that people who are homeless have constitutional rights, including the right to due process when government seeks to seize their possessions,” noted ACLU spokesman Doug Honig.

The ACLU was not involved in the Clark County suit, but joined HRC and other civil rights organizations in seeking to change the way Seattle deals with its homeless population.

Besides ending the use of DOC prisoner work crews to clean out homeless camps, Moore said the city instructs contractors not to pick up unattended property that is not specifically marked for disposal by city workers.

That practice – like the seriousness with which Seattle now treats all personal property during cleanups of homeless encampments – reflects the urging of groups like HRC, which noted that sweeps “inherently jeopardize unsheltered individuals’ valuables and necessaries and must be done with the utmost care.”

HRC member Jeremy Wood praised Seattle’s decision to stop using prisoners for the cleanup efforts. But he said they had experienced difficulty in obtaining information from the city, which should have been more forthcoming about the DOC work crews.

Prisoners continue to perform other tasks for the city; in 2015, for example, they cleaned up 1.6 million pounds of litter in Seattle, Barclay said. The work crews are composed of offenders on work release or probation, or who have been convicted of misdemeanors; participation can be part of their sentence or an alternative to jail time

Meanwhile, prisoners continue to be used to clean out homeless encampments in other cities. In Portland, Oregon, Jeff Nelson was on a prison work crew for six months. He had previously been homeless himself for 13 years, and recalled a tent his crew once found.

“You looked in there, and the bed was all made, and family pictures, and that was someone’s home,” he said. “And they made us take that down, and throw it in the fucking trash. And it’s like, what are you doing?”

Since declaring a homelessness “emergency” in 2015, Portland has seen its homeless population increase by 10%. Residents near encampments complain about trash and crime. The city pays a contractor, Pacific Patrol Services, to clear out homeless camps, with some of the labor provided by prisoners from the Multnomah County jail – who are paid $1.00 a day.

Additionally, the Oregon Department of Transportation pays $500,000 per year for jail prisoners to maintain land it owns within freeway rights of way, said spokesman Don Hamilton. The crews work focus on cleaning up homeless camps, he added – something that used to be a small part of their work.

According to a 2013 study, 25% to 50% of homeless people have a history of incarceration. While homelessness by itself doesn’t lead to crime, a criminal record can be used to deny rental applications, which makes finding a place to live difficult. Drug use and mental illness, which are both associated with homeless populations, also increase the risk of police encounters – and thus arrest, conviction and imprisonment.


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