Seattle-Tacoma Int’l Emphasizes Compassion Regarding Homeless People in Terminal

Seattle-Tacoma Int’l Emphasizes Compassion Regarding Homeless People in Terminal
Jodi Richards
Published in: 

Like many airports and other public facilities across the United States, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) has experienced an increase in unhoused people seeking shelter within its facilities. With a portion of that population suffering from mental health issues, there have been assaults to passengers and airport employees as well as security breaches or other incidents that cause facility shutdowns or flight delays.

The Port of Seattle, which owns and operates SEA, is evolving its approach to the complex challenges associated with responding to such issues. The new strategy aims to increase safety and security for guests and employees, while also providing more assistance and support to people without housing. 

An assessment by the agency’s Task Force on Port Policing and Civil Rights recommended that the organization examine opportunities for moving away from a “traditional police response on homelessness as a key strategy for reducing external disparities around the use of force.” One primary goal was to use effective, but more compassionate, tactics.

Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic that disrupted air travel (and so many other aspects of life) also exacerbated the issue. As complaints of unhoused individuals and people in crisis at SEA increased, Port police felt their hands were tied regarding how they could respond. “In that timeframe, we were dealing with COVID and we had booking restrictions at King County Jail,” explains Sean Gillebo, deputy chief of Patrol Operations for the Port of Seattle Police Department. “We were unable to book individuals or get them resources.”

But this wasn’t just a policing problem.

“Many times, people look to the police to solve this,” Gillebo adds. “But we’ve created an environment here where [unhoused] people can come with little fear of anything happening to them—as far as getting arrested—because we were limited in what our officers can do to address the problem.”


Project: Reducing Incidents Involving Homeless People

Location: Seattle-Tacoma Int’l Airport

Owner/Operator: Port of Seattle

Program: SEA Cares

Key Strategies: Make facilities less attractive/conducive for people trying to take up residence at airport; adding crisis coordinator & mental health professional to police force; weekly terminal tours to provide unhoused visitors with alternatives for shelter & support services

Dual Goals: Increasing safety for passengers & employees; responding to incidents in effective, yet compassionate, manner

Sample Stats: May 2021-April 2023, crisis coordinator and/or mental health professional responded with police to 494 airport incidents, 239 involving homeless people; 204 of those encounters did not result in an arrest & 159 of offenders accepted some type of assistance or referral; 27 of the 36 unhoused people who were arrested accepted follow-up care

So the Port and its airport police force worked to make SEA less appealing to homeless people looking for a place to sleep or a warm, dry facility with free electricity and Wi-Fi. 

Some of the new facility-oriented measures include:

  • limiting access to the airport from 11:00 p.m.-5:00 a.m. for non-ticketed visitors or those without legitimate business at the airport;
  • adding a team of public support specialists to monitor terminal entry points overnight and be visible points of contact;
  • increasing “no trespass” signage and overhead announcements about associated airport regulations;
  • boosting the lighting level in baggage claim; and  
  • limiting access to pre-security seating and family restrooms.

Despite such changes, police still couldn’t take enforcement action for thefts and some of the misdemeanor crimes because they couldn’t book offenders into jail due to COVID constraints. The facility changes also didn’t address the behavioral issues underlying the assaults, some thefts and escalated interpersonal incidents.

In November 2022, the Port implemented a multi-faceted, co-responder approach called SEA Cares, which takes immediate steps to ensure the safety of travelers and airport employees while developing a long-term strategy for responding to and assisting people in crisis with compassion. 

Expanding the Team

Based on recommendations from the Task Force, the Port added a full-time crisis coordinator a year later and a full-time mental health professional to the Port of Seattle Police Department. The new personnel respond, with police officers, to calls at the airport that have a behavioral health or homelessness component.

Between May 2021 and April 2023, the duo tallied 494 airport encounters, 239 of which were with individuals experiencing homelessness. No arrests were made in 204 of the 239 encounters, and 159 of the people involved accepted some type of assistance or referral from SEA Cares.

Of the 36 unhoused people who were arrested, 27 accepted follow-up care. “Even if they’re getting arrested, we try to do something for them,” emphasizes Viktoriya Rossiytseva, the mental health professional who goes on the calls. 

“Almost half [of our encounters] are with homeless individuals, which is pretty significant,” she adds. “My role is helping the officers figure out what the issue is, collaborate to come up with a solution or an outcome in the moment, and then I take on the follow-up role.”

Follow-up often includes referrals to other agencies and ensuring individuals receive treatment or support services. “Hopefully, they’re not coming back to the airport and are getting their needs met elsewhere,” says Rossiytseva.

“The main point is reducing recidivism,” adds Michelle Bregel, a Port of Seattle Police Department officer who serves as the SEA Cares crisis coordinator. “You can’t arrest your way out of a problem like this. You have to get people connected to resources. Getting people’s needs met is what is going to help us reach our goal of reducing recidivism and not seeing the same people back at the airport over and over again.”

Her role includes responding to identified encampments on Port properties, offering connections to services, providing items to meet immediate or emergent needs, and posting 72-hour trespass notices.

When a call at SEA results in an arrest, that doesn’t end Bregel’s involvement. “We don’t book and then walk away,” she says, explaining that in-custody outreach is an important part of her role. She notes that it sometimes takes multiple offers before a person will accept assistance, but follow-up has eventually yielded many positive outcomes and reduced recidivism, an ultimate goal of both law enforcement and SEA Cares.

Rossiytseva cites an example of a woman who would wander around the baggage claim area, always in distress, screaming and scaring some passengers. “She would talk to me, but every time I would offer help, she would say, ‘No, I don’t need it,’ and basically run away from the airport, but come back the next day or week.”

Finally, a few months later, the woman came to SEA and asked to speak with Rossiytseva—she was ready to talk about her situation and agreed to accept assistance. Ultimately, Rossiytseva connected the woman with peer counselors who helped her find an apartment, reconnect with family and receive treatment for her mental health diagnosis.

Gillebo reports that having Rossiytseva and Bregel respond with airport police has made a “huge impact” deescalating some situations. The skills and experience they bring to the mix are a welcome addition. 

Initially, Bregel and Rossiytseva responded to calls together and worked four 10-hour days per week. Now, they split duty to provide more days of coverage. “It’s really provided the officers with a much greater opportunity to have access to us and our program by having one of us there every day,” Bregel notes.

Rossiytseva says that working at an airport is a unique role for a mental health professional due to the unique combination of people there who are homeless and in crisis. As a result, the job requires a creative and unique set of solutions.

Bregel agrees there isn’t a single solution for dealing with unhoused visitors in airports. But, in the current environment, extra resources are best for SEA. “We have a lot of people in the airport who aren’t equipped to handle situations like this on their own, who aren’t trained to intervene,” she says. “The police department is probably the best-equipped to handle these situations, however, some issues aren’t necessarily policing issues.”

Often, the general public doesn’t understand that if individuals in crisis are removed from the airport, there isn’t necessarily a place to take them. During the COVID pandemic, the already limited capacity in the jails, shelters and inpatient treatment facilities was drastically reduced. “It’s very simple to say, ‘Take them somewhere else.’ And it sounds like a great idea; but where are you going to take them?” Bregel asks rhetorically.

That’s where SEA Cares makes a difference—by connecting homeless people at the airport with organizations that can provide them with help. 

For Rossiytseva, building partnerships with outside agencies is key to the success of SEA Cares. “It’s difficult to find social service agencies that will work with the airport,” she says, citing limited funding or lack of staff who can come to the airport to meet with individuals in crisis.

“We’re not a city, we’re not a county, we’re not any of the types of departments where funding is directed,” Bregel points out. “So it’s been a challenge to create partnerships with some of the social service agencies that do contract with cities or departments.”

Bregel and Rossiytseva recently created a partnership with a local outreach team, the Recovery Navigator Program, that walks with them through the airport several times each month to make contact with people sleeping at the airport or who are otherwise trying to make SEA facilities their de facto home. “It’s really focused on diversion,” Rossiytseva explains. “Instead of issuing a trespass notice or doing something related to the criminal justice system, we try to offer services to take care of those needs.”

Partnerships include:

  • cooperating with the King County Mobile Crisis Team and other social service agencies to facilitate connections to resources for people experiencing homelessness;
  • establishing a three-year agreement with the city of Seattle for law enforcement support with recurring unlawful actions; and
  • collaborating with the city of Burien’s Crime Reduction Unit and Human Services team to address encampments that are outside the airport but on Port property in Burien.

Positive Impact

Since SEA Cares has been up and running, informal surveys indicate that airport and airline employees feel safer and more secure at the airport. Bregel shares her experience and knowledge of crisis communications by making presentations to airport stakeholders such as airline, airport and tenant employees about how to engage effectively and deescalate situations. She covers dealing with upset or agitated customers, when to involve law enforcement, which number to call in various situations and what kind of information to provide emergency responders. She also cautions employees about offering assistance to those seeking shelter at SEA

“We have a lot of people in the airport that have big hearts, and they want to help,” Bregel says, noting that offering free meals or blankets can actually hinder coordinated efforts at the airport. Instead, she encourages well-intentioned airport staff to donate or volunteer with organizations that partner with SEA Cares.

Bregel considers the Airports Council International-North America an invaluable resource for learning about what other airports across the country are doing to address the situation and discovering new ideas to consider at SEA.


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