by Carolyn Bick
A bill that would create a public emergency ordinance to restrict the City of Seattle’s ability to sweep encampments during the current novel coronavirus crisis will be introduced to the Seattle City Council on Monday, May 18, with a vote to be taken on May 25, the Emerald has learned.
Though the Emerald was able to verify the legitimacy of the document, based on email signatures, it was unable to immediately verify who will be introducing the bill and who has signed on to co-sponsor it. Since the initial writing of this story, the Emerald has learned that Councilmember Tammy Morales’ office will be introducing the bill, and Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant will be co-sponsoring it.
Citing the recent Ballard encampment sweep, which the City of Seattle justified by pointing to the encampment’s hepatitis A outbreak, the bill states that displacing individuals would likely further limit their access to sanitation and force them into even denser living situations, like group living shelters. This runs contrary to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s current recommendations, which state that the homeless community should be allowed to shelter in place in non-congregate situations with adequate access to hygiene and sanitation.
However, the bill said, as long as encampments don’t pose a risk to public health, limiting their removal has a greater chance of reducing the risk of novel coronavirus transmission, because it would allow people living in these encampments “the opportunity to develop better connections to hygiene services and increase their self-distancing, rather than focusing their efforts on locating new areas to camp or clustering into fewer areas.”
The emergency ordinance would stop funds from being used to relocate or remove unsanctioned encampments, until the end of the year or Mayor Jenny Durkan lifts the current emergency order. However, encampments may be removed under certain conditions. For instance, if an encampment poses an active health threat — excluding the transmission of the novel coronavirus or other communicable diseases — and appropriate public health resources have been provided, but did not solve the problem, and relocation would solve the problem, an encampment could be swept. The bill also states that encampments posing a fire hazard, infrastructure safety, or those created in front of an entrance or exit or within a children’s play area may be swept.
Speaking to the Emerald on behalf of Councilmember Morales’ office, aide Devin Silvernail said in a phone interview that though Durkan had said that the City of Seattle would scale back work with the Navigation Team, it wasn’t an official policy. This ordinance would make it so, he said.
“It’s not necessarily restricting anything, moreso it’s making what the mayor said an enforceable thing,” Silvernail said.
But the ordinance does not include language that requires the City of Seattle to follow the CDC’s recommendations about homelessness, such as providing non-congregate shelter space. When asked why the bill does not include this language, Silvernail said they didn’t believe they needed to put it in, because creating the ordinance would set a standard from which the city had to work. However, he didn’t rule out the possibility that future work might have to be done around that issue, if it isn’t laid out clearly enough for the city. He also invited concerned members of the public to write to their Councilmembers about the issue.
The bill as it will be presented at Council on May 18 has also been altered from its original form, and does not include a proviso that had been in the original document. Though Silvernail said he can’t speak much about the dropped proviso, due to legal restrictions, the email the Emerald received suggested it had to do with the police. Silvernail said that part of it focused specifically on ensuring the Navigation Team would be staffed by outreach workers who carried out services like providing referrals and handing out hygiene kits.
“What we did keep was the other one that we think sufficiently still does address the public health concern, but doesn’t necessarily change the way the Navigation Team functions or looks,” Silvernail said.
Mosqueda said in an email to the Emerald that the Navigation Team’s actions at the Ballard encampment spurred her and her colleagues to act. Mosqueda said she worked with stakeholders to write legislation that specifically addressed the city’s claim that the encampment posed a risk to public health as justification to sweep it, rather than first trying to implement appropriate public health measures.
“Posting about a sweep during a deadly pandemic causes people to disperse into the community and is the complete opposite of what the CDC guidance says to do. This deadly public health crisis demands a public health led response and greater coordination among programs — that’s what this legislation aims to do,” she said in the email.
The emergency ordinance would go into effect immediately upon passage by a 3/4 vote of the Council, and its approval by Durkan.
Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here.
Featured image sourced from the Seattle City Council Flickr account.