The morning of May 21, dozens of police arrived at Weller Street and 12th Avenue in Seattle’s Chinatown International District (CID) for a publicized clearing of a large homeless encampment. Community members were there to meet them in the cold rain, bearing protest signs and witness to the events.
It was the second such sweep in two days. According to the city’s homelessness response blog, 25 people at the two sites accepted referrals to shelter, although local homelessness advocates argue that the sweeps should not have taken place at all.
Two hours after the sweep began, elected officials and experts sat down on a digital call, their faces popping up in Brady Bunch-style panels. It was the first meeting of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA), a body years in the making that some hope will better coordinate a regional response to the homelessness crisis that has been growing in King County for years.
Johnathan Hemphill, a member of the board and part of the Lived Experience Coalition, which brings people who have experienced homelessness to the policy-making table, called that out.
“There is a sweep going on, on Weller. That’s not the way we should do things. That does not center the humanity of people who are going through the struggles that they are,” Hemphill said.
The juxtaposition was stark, and part of a sometimes confounding array of recent attempts to reduce homelessness and human suffering on the streets even as authorities are dealing with the dual crises of homelessness and infectious disease outbreaks among housed and unhoused people alike.
In the past weeks, the city has conducted three large sweeps — one in Ballard Commons park and two in the CID — in the name of public health and safety. In parallel, City Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents the CID neighborhood, put forward legislation cosponsored by councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant that would throw the brakes on such actions, effectively defunding the operations except under specific conditions.
Last week, a partnership of public and private entities called the Third Door Coalition announced a $1.6 billion plan to reduce chronic homelessness in the region to “functional zero” by getting 6,500 people who have been surviving outside or in shelters — often for more than a year — into their own housing. They have not yet secured the funding.
Now, the KCHRA has met, although the two-hour meeting on May 21 seemed more of an update than a meeting of minds as the necessary committees, governing bodies and implementation groups are not yet active.
Even the bylaws are at question.
The Seattle City Council, represented by Council President Lorena Gonzalez, raised concerns in December 2019 about changes to the structure of the KCRHA that took power away from policy-minded technocrats and handed it to elected officials from King County and incorporated cities. The new format meant Seattle was putting up most of the funding without a commensurate amount of voting power, handing more authority to smaller, more conservative cities in the county.
“We’re faced with a situation — eight to nine months from now — being put in the position of having the new City Council having to vote to decline participating with our dollars in the regional government authority if we are unsuccessful in executing upon the intent as described in this ordinance,” Gonzalez said in December.
What did come out of the Thursday meeting, however, was at least tacit acknowledgment from some that the new authority be cochaired by a member of the Lived Experience Coalition, a push led by Hemphill.
“You need to have people of lived experience if you’re going to have a co-chair system,” Hemphill said, immediately backed up by Gonzalez, who said that the move would send a “strong signal” to the wider community.
“I do feel it’s important for us in the structure of setting up this committee to support the effort of really baking in those folks with lived experience into our leadership model,” Gonzalez said.
As the KCRHA looks forward, conflicts in Seattle’s leadership over how to deal with the current confluence of homelessness, coronavirus and hepatitis A are firmly rooted in the present.
Sweeps of Ballard Commons and the CID drew criticism from advocates who oppose the encampment cleanups in normal times. They see the current set as a threat to the health and safety of the homeless people who are displaced.
Recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say communities should allow people living in encampments to stay where they are unless “individual housing” is available.
“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread,” the CDC guidelines read.
Morales cited those recommendations in her legislation, which builds on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s March 17 decree that sweeps end unless they were an obstruction or hazard.
Morales’ bill requires at least one of the following to justify a sweep: the encampment constitutes “an active health threat” to people residing there or in the neighborhood and “relocation” would resolve the threat, poses an “immediate hazard,” impedes Americans with Disabilities Act sidewalk clearance, presents a fire or safety hazard to infrastructure, obstructs an entrance or exit to a building or is located in a children’s play area.
In an interview with KUOW’s Bill Radke on May 21, Durkan addressed the bill, which she has indicated that she does not support.
“I would say that the legislation as written, actually, during a global pandemic, precludes the city from considering whether the spread of either COVID or hepatitis A presents a risk to the people in the encampment or the people in the community,” Durkan said.
The coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on community members and community systems, laying bare inequities that have long existed. How to move forward while protecting vulnerable members of the community — housed and unhoused — remains in tension.
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 of the May 27 - June 2, 2020 issue.