It feels like Groundhog Day: once again, the Mayor’s office and the City Council are at war over when it’s appropriate to remove unsanctioned homeless encampments. But COVID-19 puts a new twist on this never-ending debate.
Earlier this year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a recommendation that has thrown a wrench into the works: it argued that removing encampments — or even simply giving advance notice of a removal — runs the risk of dispersing homeless individuals into the community and thereby further spreading COVID-19. Also recognizing that congregate homeless shelters can become hotspots for the spread of the virus, the CDC recommended that if “individual rooms or safe shelter” options are not available, encampments should not be cleared. The Community Police Commission has issued its own recommendation that the city should follow the CDC guidance and limit encampment removals.
After a dust-up between the Council and the Mayor in February, the Navigation Team promised that it would not clear encampments except in “extreme” circumstances. Since then, it claims that it has cleared exactly two, including a high-profile one at Ballard Commons Park that caused some Council members to question whether the Navigation Team was keeping its promise.
The issue has come to a head again this week, as the city announced two more cleanups in the Chinatown-International District and Little Saigon neighborhoods: one on S. King Street under I-5, and the other on S. Weller Street between 12th Avenue S. and Rainier Avenue S. Earlier this week, Council members complained that they were having difficulty getting the Navigation Team to provide detailed justifications for these two cleanups as well as documentation on the outreach work and offers of shelter that were made to their residents. The city has now made those details available in its blog post today announcing the encampment removals, but one can understand the Council’s frustration in feeling impeded in its oversight role, especially after experiencing similar behavior for the Ballard Commons Park encampment cleanup.
In response to the disconnect they perceive between the city’s words and actions (and let’s be honest, a fair amount of ideological opposition to the encampment removals in general) Council members Morales, Sawant and Mosqueda introduced this week a bill that would codify further restrictions on encampment cleanups for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. I analyzed that legislation in a post earlier this week.
Today, Deputy Mayor Mike Fong fired back at the Council in a letter laying out the objections that the Mayor’s Office has to their bill. Fong doesn’t hold back, saying, “This bill is as poorly drafted and analyzed as I’ve ever seen and fails to recognize basic and legitimate operational, legal and policy considerations, without any consultation with the impacted city departments.” He calls out nine specific objections to the legislation, echoing previous wars-of-words between the executive and legislative branches over justifications for encampment removals. Well-tread arguments include whether the legislation effetivley authorizes camping across the city and in parks and green spaces, the impacts on neighboring businesses, and fire and safety hazards. Fong also specifically criticizes the bill for prohibitng encampment removals for public safety reasons including criminal activity, and for saying that the danger of communicable diseases — including COVID-19 and Hepatitis A — are not valid reasons for encampment removals.
Fong hammers hard in his letter on the public safety issues, both criminal activity and fire hazards, a point that is echoed in the city’s published description of the two encampments scheduled for removal this week (certainly no coincidence). Here is the description of the S. King Street site:
The most significant risks at this location are:
- There was a firearm homicide involving encampment residents on April 10th.
- SPD has reported a doubling of “on-view” incidents, (where officers come across an event on their own without being dispatched), with a primary uptick in April, creating an unsafe environment for occupants in the unauthorized encampment and the surrounding community.
- The growing number of people living unsheltered and in close/dense proximity increases the risk for both COVID-19 and hepatitis A exposure and spread and other communicable diseases.
- The prevalence of solid waste, biowaste, food waste, and loose sharps posed a significant public health risk despite continued Navigation Team outreach and litter/debris mitigation.
- Living structures and stored materials obstructed safe access to sidewalks, rights-of-ways, and also present a fire hazard to freeway infrastructure.
And the S. Weller Street site:
The most significant risks at this location are:
- SPD officers investigated a shooting in the encampment on May 10 and found a woman with a gunshot wound to the chest. SFD transported the victim to Harborview Medical Center. Homicide unit is investigating the incident.
- There have been three reports of shots fired since April, one as recently as April 26th. SPD data shows reports of rape, aggravated assault, robbery, and burglaries on this block in the past 28 days alone. Recently there was a stabbing in the area.
- Data shows that year-to-date there has been a 65% increase in Seattle Police Department “on-view” incidents in the vicinity with the primary uptick in April, creating an unsafe environment for occupants in the unauthorized encampment and the surrounding community.
- The growing number of people living unsheltered and in close/dense proximity without safe social distancing increases the risk for individuals to contract both COVID-19, Hepatitis A, and other communicable diseases.
- The prevalence of solid waste, hazardous materials, biowaste, chemical waste, food waste, and loose sharps posed a significant public health risk despite continued Navigation Team outreach and litter/debris mitigation.
- Living structures and stored materials obstructed safe access to sidewalks and rights-of-ways.
Morales, however, is not backing down. In an email to constituents earlier this evening, she wrote (emphasis hers):
I realize that some may not agree with this sort of legislative action. My office has heard frustration from some neighbors over new encampments. I know that frustration is coming from a good place. I’m frustrated too. At the bare minimum, we should be providing individual shelter space like the CDC advises, and realistically should be making every effort to house every single person living unhoused, but we’re not.
Instead, we’ve instituted a practice of sweeping humans from one place to another and during this crisis we continue to place people in congregate shelter, which the CDC warns us not to do. Our actions and liberal use of sweeps have eroded the trust of the homeless community in the city. No wonder folks scatter before a sweep and no wonder some are reluctant to accept or seek help from us.
Following the sweep at Ballard Commons, it’s obvious that a formal City policy is necessary. Many folks left the Ballard encampment early, potentially negating the whole reason behind the sweep in the first place, which is the exact reason that the CDC issued guidelines advising against sweeps. This will only continue to happen if we continue to sweep our neighbors during this pandemic.
Without a formal policy, there is no enforcement of the current City rule – which is something I saw way back in March. If passed into law, this bill will codify HSD’s unofficial guidelines, put them under more of a public health lens, and force the City to adhere to it’s own idea of prioritizing outreach and referral to homeless neighbors over sweeping them from one place to another.
As currently written Morales’s bill is emegency legislation, which would take effect immediately but requires a 3/4 vote of the Council (seven of the nine Council members) and the Mayor’s approval to pass; if the Mayor vetoes it, there is no provision for the Council to override. That will lead to some interesting negotiations in the coming weeks.
The bill first comes up for deliberations on May 27th.