Corner Story: SPD Sgt. Balances Homeless Outreach With City’s Laws

Sgt. Gracy talks to Russell about living on the sidewalk.

Sgt. Gracy talks to Russell about taking up residence on the sidewalk. (Photos by Det. Patrick Michaud)

Sergeant Paul Gracy isn’t a landlord. He can’t charge rent, demand security deposits or, generally speaking, evict unwanted tenants.

Yet he still has to figure out what to do with Russell, a seemingly permanent fixture on the sidewalks near Denny Way and Aurora Avenue. “He’s been living there for four years,” Gracy says, walking toward Russell’s abode.

Russell, wearing a black sleeveless T-shirt with “Sugar Mama needed” scrawled on the front, sees Gracy and waves, a smoldering cigarette in hand. He knows what’s coming next – a request to move. “I’m doing what I can to stay out of trouble,” he tells the sergeant.

It’s the first step of an old dance. Russell and Gracy have all the moves down. If police force Russell from one spot, he just moves to another. Arrests are a last resort because jail time does little. He’ll come straight back. “We got human services out and they put him in a motel. It solved my problem for two weeks,” Gracy says, “until he started having guests. So he’s back.”

Seattle has hundreds of people like Russell living downtown on sidewalks, in parks, and under bridges. Mayor Ed Murray, in his 2015-16 budget, has proposed spending an additional $3 million over the next two years to rapidly rehouse people who end up homeless and create additional capacity at homeless shelters, among other measures.

Gracy and his community police team at the West Precinct mix with the homeless daily, urging them to go to shelters, asking them to move. They prod them to seek help from friends, family, social services and query them about mental health and drug problems.

The team, which has six officers including Gracy, has to balance the needs of a vulnerable population of homeless people downtown with laws that dictate where they can and can’t hang out. The officers also must respond to concerns raised by tourists, businesses and other city residents who fear for their safety.

The sergeant constantly gets emails regarding the homeless population, including from people who live out of state. Tourists run into people living on the street who say “hey, give me a buck,” and are unnerved by the experience, Gracy said. As a result, “their perception is that it’s not a safe city.”

Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole says the city’s growing homeless population has emerged as a top priority for the department. “We’re committed to addressing this issue in a comprehensive and collaborative way,” she said. “Sgt. Gracy and his team have been doing a great job under trying circumstances.”

Sgt. Gracy talks to man camping near overpass. The mayor’s Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homeless Meets Thursday.

Sgt. Gracy talks to man camping near overpass in the International District. The mayor’s Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homeless will hold it’s first public meeting Thursday at 2 p.m on the 40th floor of the municipal tower.

While long-term solutions are needed, there are immediate steps being taken such as beefing up patrols downtown to increase visibility and pursuing other measures such as increasing lighting in parks.  The department also is working with other city agencies and local groups to develop better guidance for officers.

Cary Clark, Argosy Cruises’ community relations director, credits Gracy and his team for being responsive to concerns and checking in personally to see how things are going. “We’ve had some difficult people to deal with,” she said.

She recalled having trouble with a man who set up on the waterfront with a pit bull and panhandled during the day, intimidating clients. Gracy checked into the man’s history, discovered he was a sex offender who’d failed to register and had him arrested.

Clark also appreciates it when Gracy tells her his limits. “He’ll let us know when he can’t help,” she said.

The city does have an ordinance that says people can’t sit or lie on sidewalks from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in an area that stretches from Denny Way to King Street and from Interstate 5 to the water, Gracy said. There’s also a city ordinance that bans camping anywhere in the city.

Even so, people still camp, sit and lie down. Police have a limited toolbox to work with.

“This is an issue we know we can’t fix,” said Gracy, an affable, 35-year SPD veteran, with close-cropped hair and a mustache. “I’m not going to stop homelessness. My job is to manage it.”

‘I’m running out of options’

That requires going out and talking to his clientele.

Like Russell.

“I don’t know why you guys come to give me a hard time,” Russell tells Gracy, after the officer reminds him, yet again, he can’t live on the sidewalks.

Russell doesn’t want to move. He’s got a brown sleeping bag spread out at his feet, with clothes, a towel and other gear piled on top. He points out that he’s always friendly to the officers. “I keep it civil.”

Gracy asks if he needs help connecting with social services, asks him about staying in shelters. In the end, though, the sergeant lets it go and decides to continue the battle another day.

“Russell, what do I do with Russell,” he muses, walking back to his car. “I’m running out of options.”

He could write Russell tickets for sitting and lying on the sidewalk. “And if he doesn’t pay it after three or four of those, we can put him in jail,” Gracy says. “But that doesn’t solve my problem.”

Gracy faces similar dilemmas with many of the homeless people living in his precinct. He notes most of the county’s social services are located downtown, as are the shelters. More and more people are also avoiding the shelters and camping out in tents, he said.

At the same time, the downtown core is booming, with condos and apartments being built at a rapid rate. That means more residents walking about town early in the morning and late at night, and running into the homeless.

It keeps Gracy’s team busy running interference and explaining to folks making complaints what the police can and cannot do.

“We never say, sorry, it’s not my problem,” Gracy said. “It’s always our problem. We just have to be creative.”

Maintaining a presence

Gracy’s team puts a lot of effort into breaking up large, unauthorized homeless encampments, like one located behind a beaten down fence next to an I-5 overpass in the International District.

He gets complaints from nearby businesses about the encampment. It’s a secluded, shaded, park-like area with mature fir trees and a thick carpet of pine needles.

When Gracy drove to the site recently, its occupants shouted warnings. By the time he walked into the area, only a couple of people remained. There was one tent with some chairs beside it. Piles of black garbage bags were nearby with trash spilling out and a cat nosing through the refuse.

Gracy looked around and said the area had far fewer people hanging out, compared to a few weeks ago. There used to be a much larger encampment of people and tents. It was recently cleared out and cleaned up by state and city workers.

The city is working on a more permanent solution, such as clearing out the area, installing lighting and paving it for use as a parking lot.

In the meantime, the sergeant’s strategy is to have his team regularly drop by and let the campers know it’s illegal for them to be there. The police presence has an effect, he said. “If we leave this area and don’t tell people they have to go, this will multiply tenfold,” he said, pointing to the one remaining tent.

One key to dealing with complaints received by police is to spread out the homeless population into smaller groups, Gracy said, “Because when they congregate, that’s when they are noticed. If you have a few little pockets here and there, that’s when it’s less likely to be an issue.”

Gracy said his team can generally melt away homeless encampments just by having officers hang out, but with limited resources, they can’t be everywhere at once.

Lately, he’s focused on Occidental Park, stationing officers there as much as possible. Walking through there recently, Gracy saw a few homeless people sleeping in the park, but not an overwhelming presence.

He considers it a success when he can go to an area that once generated complaints and feel comfortable walking around.

For Gracy, that means moving on to the next item on his never-ending list. “Maybe I need to move those resources over to 1st Avenue where we have a problem,” he said.