Opinion: Why is Seattle Sweeping Homeless Encampments During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

by Dae Shik Kim and Guy Oron

What justified the sweep that happened to Alex, a Black man facing homelessness who documented two police officers and one city worker destroying his belongings under I-5 and I-90 bridge near Airport Way on Thursday, March 12?

His encampment was tucked away under the highway bridge away from any pedestrian sidewalk. Not an obstruction. Not a safety hazard. Out of sight, out of mind. Law enforcement let him know he couldn’t keep his generator claiming it was broken, or his tent, claiming it was “ripped and soiled.”According to Alex’s video footage, he had 30 minutes to gather whatever belongings he did not want destroyed.

The City of Seattle, led by Mayor Jenny Durkan, is receiving a lot of criticism for their treatment of homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Deputy Mayor Mike Fong told Seattle City Council on March 16 that all homeless encampment sweeps have ended except for the ones that are classified as “obstructions” or “blocking the pedestrians right of way.”

Many housing advocates assumed the homeless encampment sweeps would stop altogether once the CDC announced their recommendations of social distancing and self quarantining for those who felt sick. Social distancing is very difficult for the over 11 thousand homeless people in Seattle/King County. The hard reality is that for many people living without permanent affordable housing, staying inside of their encampments or vehicles is the best option people can take to survive the pandemic.

Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD) released a new statement the morning after Mike Fong spoke with the council reiterating that all scheduled sweeps (which require 72-hour notice) had been cancelled since  the beginning of March. The statement also said that most encampments classified as “obstructions” were no longer set to be removed either, unless they are “significant barrier to accessibility of city streets and sidewalks, and is an extraordinary public safety hazard.”

However, it is unclear how many sweeps will continue as “significant barrier” and “extraordinary public safety hazard” are not clearly defined in the statement. The majority of sweeps are already obstruction sweeps. According to public records, the city conducted 850 obstruction sweeps last year, comprising 71% of all sweeps in 2019.

An excerpt from the HSD’s March 17 statement


The statement shows that the HSD continues to operate under the facetious claim that sweeps are in any way necessary. Sweeps have never been needed and kick people out of whatever little shelter they have. They are state violence. The COVID-19 crisis simply amplifies the harm unhoused people who are swept face.

A close reading of the city’s statement also reveals a more insidious logic behind the decision to continue to conduct some sweeps. The city has used the language of disability justice and accessibility to say that unhoused people who are trying to survive (and responsibly social distance) in the only shelter they have are instead dangerous. This logic is both ableist (as 64% of unhoused people in King County have at least one ongoing health condition and 37% are disabled) and will only hurt the ability for the government to support unhoused people during the COVID-19 pandemic. If the city wants to take the COVID-19 emergency seriously, it needs to stop all sweeps.

Dae Shik currently works as the Director of Development at the viral video company Cut.com and can be found on many of their videos. Dae Shik is also a freelance writer that covers topics around race, homelessness and religion. Some publications that have published his work include The Atlantic, Crosscut, and The South Seattle Emerald.

Guy Oron is a Seattle-based student, worker, activist, and journalist. Guy specializes in community-based storytelling and investigative reporting. His writing has been featured in the South Seattle Emerald, Seattle Globalist, and the UW Daily.

Featured image by Sharon H. Chang

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