An attempt to curtail homeless encampment sweeps during the coronavirus pandemic stalled May 27 in the face of resolute opposition by members of the executive branch despite testimony from some frontline workers that the status quo is hurting their clients.
The emergency ordinance, sponsored by Councilmember Tammy Morales, would put additional guardrails on when the city could sweep encampments in the name of health and safety, leaning heavily on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that recommends leaving encampments in place during the pandemic if there is not “individual housing” inside for each camper.
The CDC uses the power of the purse to defund operations that do not fit these parameters.
The Mayor’s Office opposed the councilmember’s proposal from the outset and showed no signs of relenting during a sometimes-heated exchange with councilmembers that launched the five-and-a-half-hour marathon meeting of the Select Committee on Homelessness Strategies and Investments, which ended without a vote.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the committee, pushed the discussion to June 10 when he hopes to convene another meeting between the committee, the Human Services Department, the mayor’s executive team and the City Budget Office to discuss alternatives to the legislation, such as modifying existing rules that govern certain encampment cleanups.
“I want to take the executive up on the offer to come to the table and talk to Council,” Lewis said.
Encampment sweeps have long been a contentious issue in Seattle and one where both sides attempt to stake out the “health and safety” high ground. The recent debate has focused on three, large sweeps that took place in May, including one in Ballard Commons and two in the Chinatown International District.
City officials say that the three encampments were rife with criminal activity and unsanitary conditions that posed a danger to the surrounding communities. Sweeps opponents counter that giving people the choice between being forced out of an encampment, where they have some separation and where outreach workers can find them, and into congregate shelter when the best medical advice — to shelter away from other people — is no choice at all.
The City Council must ensure the health and safety of all residents, Morales said, not just a select group.
“It’s time to stop treating homelessness like a crime problem and start treating it like the public health crisis that it is,” Morales said.
The executive team — represented by deputy mayors Michael Fong and Casey Sixkiller, Police Chief Carmen Best and Fire Chief Harold Scoggins — pushed back forcefully on the idea that limiting sweeps was in the public interest, pointing to extreme examples of criminality such drug trafficking, child sex trafficking and other activity that they say is masked within tent encampments.
Arresting people committing these crimes, while leaving the rest of the encampment intact, is ineffective, Best said.
“We can arrest the criminals, but more will come and take their place,” Best said.
The legislation is silent on the regular work of the Seattle Police Department. It only deals with encampment removals, and does allow for removals under certain circumstances, such as if the encampment constitutes a health hazard, if it does not allow four feet of clearance on a sidewalk or if it’s in a children’s play area, among others.
The power of the bill, according to a summary prepared by Council Central Staff, is that it removes discretion given to the executive under Mayor Jenny Durkan’s March 17 order that ended sweeps outside of “extreme circumstances,” which was undefined.
Under that order, the number of sweeps went down from more than 300 in a single quarter to just four since March, Sixkiller said. He maintained that those individuals were given offers of congregate shelter, which also fit within CDC guidelines.
“Congregate shelter is not unsafe, and I’m concerned about a narrative suggesting otherwise,” Sixkiller said.
Seattle and King County have invested in “de-intensifying” existing shelters since the pandemic hit by moving people out of existing shelters where they can sleep as little as six inches apart and spreading them out. That hasn’t stopped outbreaks in shelters, however.
According to a document from Seattle & King County Public Health posted by Seattle Times reporter Sydney Brownstone, 258 clients and staff in shelters have been diagnosed with Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. At least one shelter had to shut down as a result.
While the CDC guidance does include recommendations for maintaining safe congregate shelter, it also explicitly suggests leaving encampments where they are “if individual housing options are not available.” The guidance does not connect the steps to make congregate shelter safer with encampment clearances.
“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the guidance reads. “This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
Jessica Kwon, an outreach worker with REACH who works with people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, told councilmembers that the CDC predictions have already come to pass.
“This was happening before Covid and it’s happening during Covid, and I still haven’t been able to find most of my clients,” Kwon said.
Connecting people with resources and services is challenging in the best of times because of the many contacts needed to do something as basic as getting people into shelter. If a client doesn’t have a reliable means of communication, finding them in person is the only way of getting them help. That’s far more difficult if encampments are being swept, Kwon said.
The meeting was split into two panels, the first with the executive team and the second with service providers including Kwon. That group had a split opinion on the efficacy and necessity of sweeps, with roughly half saying they were detrimental to the public health effort as they are currently executed and the other saying that they can be necessary.
Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, said that she didn’t oppose moving people along if it meant they got into a better situation than the encampment.
“Unfortunately, that is rarely taking place,” Eisinger said, noting that fewer than 100 new shelter spaces have opened up and that making it harder for people to connect to services didn’t help anyone.
Things need to change, but defunding the Navigation Team isn’t the answer, said Esther Lucero, chief executive officer of the United Indian Health Board.
Lucero’s staff has stopped three rapes. Their building has been broken into several times, costing thousands of dollars in repairs and heightened security. People have overdosed in their bathroom and thrown feces on staff.
The burden of dealing with the crisis on the streets, which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis, is falling on organizations like hers without monetary support from the city or county, Lucero said.
“Everybody is doing this work independently and we’re not doing it together,” Lucero said. “So, we are left with scarcity of resources and no effort to gather to solve problems.”
Instead, Lucero wants to see the Navigation Team transition into a community-based policing model grounded in mental health and for a more collaborative effort to share resources to tackle the crisis.
Ultimately, the more than five hours of discussion brought up new information and clarified details but did not move toward any concrete action. Durkan’s signature is still necessary for emergency legislation, and the deputy mayors made it plain from the outset that she would be unlikely to change her position on the matter.
“Just as there is no simple answer and solution to homelessness, there is no two-page bill that can capture the nuances and substitute for the professional judgment of the [Navigation] Team, police and firefighters, outreach workers and human service providers to respond to the complex issues that present themselves in some unsanctioned encampments,” Fong said.
Recognizing that, Lewis called for a second meeting on June 10 to talk about potential changes to the multi-departmental administrative rules (MDARs) that currently govern encampment removals. The MDARs were revisited in a lengthy process in 2017 that resulted in some reforms, but have mostly fallen by the wayside because they only apply to sweeps where 72 hours’ notice is given.
Under Durkan’s time in office, the vast majority of sweeps have been conducted under the umbrella of “hazards or obstructions,” meaning they do not have to give warning and most protections under the MDARs do not apply.
The three large sweeps in May all fell under these rules.
“Esther Lucero pointed out rather well that we should be able to find a way to come together and come to some kind of accord,” Lewis said.
Read more in the May 27 - June 2, 2020 issue.