As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc in the region, the city has not yet released funds for hygiene and outreach projects approved in Seattle’s 2020 budget that could help ameliorate the crisis.
Contracts to support outreach to sex workers and vehicle residents as well as the money to purchase five mobile hygiene pitstops are still in the works, despite the need for these services to prevent illness and identify people potentially infected.
“We’re sitting here waiting,” said Sherae Lascelles, founder of the Green Light Project, a harm reduction group that provides sex workers with hand sanitizer, snacks and supplies for safe sex, among other needed items.
The contracts take time, and while some were anticipated to be completed by the end of the month, the coronavirus outbreak has stalled the process, said Will Lemke, spokesperson for Seattle’s Human Services Department.
“The CBAs you reference were being worked on by [Human Services Department] and the organizations in the days leading up to the outbreak,” Lemke said.
However, as the coronavirus outbreak continues, it means that hygiene practices recommended by public health officials remain difficult to access for Seattle’s most vulnerable.
Jean Darsie, 80, has been part of the Scofflaw Mitigation Team since it debuted in 2011 in response to a law that allowed the city to boot vehicles with a significant number of tickets. Darsie and a handful of other volunteers respond to calls about people living in their vehicles to try to help them avoid fines and the court system.
At her age, Darsie is part of the community most at risk of the coronavirus, but she still goes out to talk to vehicle residents and help them as best she can.
“I keep my distance, don’t shake hands and do sanitization things,” Darsie said. “That’s the best I can do at this point.”
For the first time since it was founded, the Scofflaw Mitigation Team won public support and public money in Seattle’s 2020 budget. They’re partnering with another nonprofit that can help with case management while they do what they’ve always done — help vehicle residents, a category of people experiencing homelessness that otherwise don’t get a lot of support.
The money would mean proactive outreach rather than responding to calls and the ability to pay for simple repairs for damaged rigs.
That could be critical during the coronavirus outbreak, Darsie said, because no one is messaging to vehicle residents.
“They don’t even know what they’re not supposed to do,” Darsie said. “Basic information about the virus, using hand sanitizer, a thing like that. They don’t have a way to clean up every day.”
In some ways, vehicle residents are well placed to ride out the virus — they already have a space to isolate, should they need to.
“They need to know it’s necessary,” Darsie said.
In November, the City Council approved $1.3 million to purchase five “mobile pitstops,” facilities where people can use the restroom, dispose of needles and wash their hands. The city says it has 100 places for people to use the restroom, shower or both. According to a map provided by the city, those include city and county-funded shelters, public restrooms, day centers, tiny house villages and county-funded warming and day centers.
But only a handful are actually open at all hours, and Seattle’s own auditor found that the city has so few public restrooms that it wouldn’t meet the standards of a refugee camp set by the United Nations.
“If we had purchased the Mobile Pit Stops and operationalized them, they could be in use right now for our unsheltered neighbors to have a place to wash their hands (and go to the bathroom),” wrote Tiffani McCoy, lead organizer with Real Change, in an email. “Now, we are scrambling to set up the necessary measures to flatten the curve.”
The city is looking at ways to get hygiene supplies out to people experiencing homelessness, Lemke said. The city and county got a bulk order of sanitation and hygiene products that are going out to service providers, and the Navigation Team — a blend of police officers and outreach workers — are distributing hygiene kits.
Lascelles knows all about hygiene kits. They and their volunteers assemble kits for sex workers to distribute on Aurora Avenue some nights. Right now, Lascelles is paying for those supplies through a “mutual aid” fund, largely bought with their own money and resources from the community.
The hundreds of thousands of dollars held by the city are key to boosting the project and making sure Lascelles can stop spending their own money on kits and pay rent instead.
Volunteers want to do more, but Lascelles has priorities — equity and compensation for work.
“We don’t have the money to pay them,” Lascelles said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Mar. 18 - 24, 2020 issue.