Today’s big debate: what to do about The Field

The City Council members today spent a fair amount of their public meeting time discussing one issue: what to do about the unsanctioned encampment called “The Field” that is scheduled for clearing tomorrow.

The Field, in the SoDo area, has existed for a while but grew last fall when the city cleared out the sprawling nearby camp known as “The Jungle.” Along with those new inhabitants, The Field also inherited some of the Jungle’s other issues: rats, large amounts of trash and needles accumulating, mud and standing water. Crime also rose: drug dealing, domestic violence incidents, and sex trafficking. According to the city, since September 2016 the police have received more than 100 calls for dispatch to the site including 36 “significant incidents.” There have also been 41 calls to the Fire Department for fire and medic responses. The Mayor’s Office believes that between the public health hazards and the crime, the encampment needs to be closed down; in particular, it notes that the rat infestation cannot be dealt with until the people and trash have been removed. It notified the encampment’s occupants on February 24 that it would be clearing the camp tomorrow. In a post today, the city points to the work it has been doing to prepare for the cleanup, including improving their processes for storage and retrieval of personal belongings and coordinated outreach to the encampment residents to offer shelter, treatment programs, and other human services.

In the meantime, the residents of the Field and the service providers and activists who support them claim that the city has not done its part, and set up the Field to fail in the aftermath of clearing out the Jungle. They claim the city’s trash pickup service has not been sufficient, and that requests for fire extinguishers and for wood chips (to help with the mud) have gone unanswered. They also claim that police presence at the Field  has diminished over the last few months, contributing the to rise in crime. Collectively, they have asked for another week to work with the city on addressing the issues (which they don’t deny exist) and finish putting together a plan for effective self-governance.

This afternoon, Council member Kshama Sawant circulated a letter to her colleagues asking the city to grant the one-week extension. Three other Council members joined her: O’Brien, Juarez and Johnson. Herbold and Gonzalez were on the fence earlier in the day, but after receiving confirmation that the rat infestation couldn’t e properly and safely addressed  until the site was cleared, they decided not to sign the letter. The letter itself has no legislative power, it simply signals to the Mayor that several Council members are dissatisfied with how his staff are handling this.

The debate among the Council members began at their Monday morning council briefing. Sawant and O’Brien made the case for the residents, while Bagshaw focused on the need to deal with the mud, the rats, and most of all the drug dealers.  The conversation spilled over to the Full Council meeting in the afternoon, when dozens of people (including both residents of the Field and activists) used the public comment session to register their opposition to the plan to clear the encampment tomorrow.

At this point, there is no indication that there will be a last-minute reprieve. A spokesperson for HSD said this afternoon that clearing activities will begin at 9am, but outreach workers will be on site before that communicating with residents and assisting with storage of belongings.