Council members attempt to further restrict “sweeps” of homeless encampments during COVID emergency

This week, Council members Morales, Sawant and Mosqueda are introducing a bill that would further restrict the city’s cleanups of unsanctioned homeless encampments during the COVID-19 emergency.

Structured as a budget proviso, the bill would prohibit city funds from being spent on removals of encampments that do not meet one of the following criteria:

  • the encampment constitutes an active health threat other than the transmission of communicable diseases (including COVID) to the occupants or the surrounding neighborhood, where public health resources have already been provided to address the condition, the health resources did not resolve the condition, and it’s anticipated that relocation would resolve it;
  • it poses an immediate hazard;
  • the path of travel clearance for sidewalks from the encampment is not 4 feet wide or greater, or the encampment blocks a curb ramp or a bike lane;
  • the encampment presents a fire or safety hazard to infrastructure;
  • the encampment obstructs an entrance or exit to a building;
  • it is located in a children’s play area.

The extra restriction would be in place until December 31, 2020 or until the Mayor terminates the COVID-19 civil emergency, whichever is earlier.

The CDC has issued guidance that during the pandemic the removal of homeless encampments may be counter-productive in that it could cause further spread of the virus by forcing homeless individuals to move around the city. While the Human Services Department has said that it has dramatically reduced the number of encampment removals during the emergency, recently it provoked the ire of several Council members by removing the Ballard Commons Park encampment, which had been growing substantially over the previous weeks and had also seen an outbreak of Hepatitis C among the occupants.

Because the bill is written to be emergency legislation, if enacted it will take effect immediately. However, enacting it will require 7 of 9 Council members to approve it and the Mayor to sign it. Based on past comments and actions, Council members Pedersen, Juarez and Herbold might have some reservations. But the trickier piece will be the Mayor since there is no provision to override her veto on emergency legislation: the only way the bill will be enacted in its current form is if the Mayor is on board. As with all bills related to “sweeps” of homeless encampments, assume that there will be back-room negotiations to find a compromise that everyone can live with.

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office provided the following statement, which suggests that the Mayor is not on board with the bill in its current form:

“During COVID-19, the Mayor created a policy to remove encampments only in limited circumstances if public health or public safety conditions arise. The Navigation Team has been working non-stop since the beginning of the pandemic to refer individuals to shelter and to offer hygiene kits and other services. While we are still reviewing the proposed bill at council, an initial review of the legislation indicates it would increase the risks to both encampment residents and impacted communities. It would essentially ensure that unsafe and dangerous encampments that pose a public safety threat could not be removed – even at locations where there have been a significant increase in crimes that impact both the residents of encampment and the neighborhood. 

 “Preserving the public safety is a primary responsibility of the City, and the proposed legislation would eliminate the City’s ability to fundamentally protect residents and businesses from not only COVID-19 but other public health and public safety concerns. The City will continue to prioritize sustaining and expanding services to support our neighbors experiencing homelessness and act with compassion, but it also is critical that the city address public health and safety risks.”

 

The bill is being referred to the Select Committee on Homelessness Strategy and Investments, which has its next meeting scheduled for May 27.


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