by Erica C. Barnett
People wheeling suitcases, lugging hand baskets, and pushing grocery carts trailed slowly out of a large homeless encampment on South Weller Street Thursday morning, passing through police barricades and a crowd of onlookers as the city’s Navigation Team removed an encampment that, as recently as last weekend, included nearly 70 tents. About 30 police were on hand to escort an estimated 36 residents away from the area.
The sweep was the second in two days by the Navigation Team, which is part of the city’s Human Services Department. The first took place on Wednesday, a few blocks away along South King Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. The team has touted its success at getting people to accept referrals to shelter from the two sites—plus another one at the Ballard Commons that was swept two weeks ago—through advance outreach and during the actual encampment removal.
Officially, sweeps are no longer happening. According to a March order by the city, “all encampment removal operations have been suspended” during the COVID-19 outbreak unless the encampment constitutes an “emergency” and there are appropriate shelter beds available for every person living there.
In reality, sweeps are still happening, and opponents believe they are ramping up. The city has acknowledged removing four encampments during the pandemic—the one in Ballard, one at South King Street on Wednesday, and two, including today’s, outside the Navigation Center. The justifications for these removals have varied widely, and not all of them fall under the criteria the city gave as examples of “extreme circumstances” in the March announcement. At a city council meeting on Monday, council member Lisa Herbold, the council’s longtime Navigation Team watchdog, said that “there seems to be continued divergence between what [people at HSD] say the policy is and what it is that the Navigation Team is actually doing.”
In a blog post, the Human Services Department said it referred 88 people to shelter from the two locations between April 1 and today. As of last weekend, the two sites combined had around 80 tents, and dozens of people were walking around, so it’s unclear whether people who received referrals simply returned to the encampment. Team director Tara Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.
“I can guarantee that everyone here, we’ve explored shelter with them, and if they wanted shelter, we’ve explored transportation barriers,” Beck said. “Our job is to offer, and the person’s job is to accept. We do our part and we have to trust that the person is doing theirs. If they’re choosing to walk away, they were not interested in the services that we were able to offer.” Beck said the city is not providing actual transportation to shelter right now because of the need for social distancing in vehicles operated by city staff; instead, she said, they can call an Uber to transport people to shelter.
But several people I spoke to at both encampments said that they were not offered shelter, or, if they were, that it did not fit with their needs. One man who was helping a friend move his stuff across the street during Wednesday’s sweep at South King Street, who identified himself as “Smiley” Dixon, said he had been living outdoors for three years and had never been offered shelter. His friend, Jacob Davis, said that the Navigation Team had “come through to let us know that they’re going to remove us,” but that “no one offered us anything.”
When I talked to Davis and Dixon, they were standing on South Jackson Street, exactly one block away from the encampment where Davis had been staying. Davis called the team’s claim to have offered shelter to every person “a bald-faced lie”—not that he would go “anywhere near” a mass shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don’t want to get the virus,” he said.
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control says that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic unless every person is offered “individual housing” such as a hotel room, rather than mass shelter, where disease can spread easily from person to person. King County has been following this guidance by moving people from existing shelters into hotel rooms, a strategy King County Executive Dow Constantine has credited for the fact that every person moved from the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s downtown Seattle shelter into a Red Lion hotel in Renton had tested negative for the virus.
“That clearly would not have been the case if they had been left in the close quarters of a congregate shelter,” Constantine said during the first meeting of the Regional Homelessness Authority governing board on Thursday.
In contrast, the city is only offering shelter beds, not hotels or housing. “The first thing we did, based on CDC guidance, was to de-intensify our shelters and set up hundreds of of new beds throughout our city,” Durkan said at the RHA board meeting, referring to community centers and other facilities that have opened up so that shelters can place existing (not new) beds further apart.
Davis said he had been moved by the Navigation Team or police “more than 100 times” in four years, and “I’ve never been offered housing.” Dixon added: “I would go to any hotel.”
Beck said the city has to balance out the CDC guidance on mass shelters against the public health concerns that exist at encampments, including lack of social distancing between people and tents. “When you weigh the risks of being unsheltered [against] the risks of being in congregate shelters, the risk of being outside is greater,” Beck said. “The CDC guidance is really important, but social distancing is also important.”
About halfway through both of this week’s encampment removals, a Parks and Recreation Department dump truck arrived to haul tents, mattresses, pallets, and other items left behind by encampment residents to the dump. Soon, it became hard to hear over the roar of the engine and the crunching sound of pallets, tents, and belongings being tossed into the truck and compacted. “They offer us storage, but they get to decide what’s trash,” Davis said. “Imagine if someone showed up at your house and told you you have 30 minutes to get out and they get to decide what you can keep. It is more stress and more trauma for most of us who are already experiencing stress and trauma living out here.”
From behind the barricades blocking off South Weller Street, which Beck said had been set up to create “a secure work site … for the safety of everyone involved,” protesters yelled at police about the lack of storage and the fact that they were not able to enter the site and assist encampment residents. Enrico Doan, who showed up to observe Thursday’s encampment removal, told me people who left the site, then tried to return to collect more of their belongings, were being told they couldn’t go back in. Neither could community activists, who wanted to hand out water and supplies. “There have been so many cops without masks on,” he added. “They have refused to allow us to hand out gloves and masks to people who don’t have them.”
City council member Tammy Morales has proposed legislation that would create specific criteria for encampment removals during the COVID state of emergency. During a statewide call with homeless advocates on Wednesday, Morales said the legislation was meant to “take what the mayor herself declared in early March as a practice that the city would follow, which was that they weren’t going to move people unless it was a serious safety hazard,” and codify it. “I really felt that we needed a more formal policy to deal with this crisis,” Morales, who was at the Wednesday-morning sweep, said. “We have so many more options, and for this to be the strategy … is really frustrating for me,” Morales said.
The mayor’s office has come out swinging against Morales’ proposal, suggesting that the temporary bill, which would expire as soon as the mayor lifts the COVID-19 state of emergency, would allow crime and chaos to take over in vulnerable communities like the International District. In a six-page-long letter to the council, senior deputy mayor Mike Fong said the bill was “as poorly drafted and analyzed as I’ve ever seen and fails to recognize basic and legitimate operational, legal and policy considerations.” Fong accused Morales of allowing a dangerous situation to continue in a neighborhood that had “borne the brunt of generational discrimination”—a message echoed by several community groups in letters asking the city to address the encampment.
There is, however, no community consensus in favor of sweeps; one neighborhood group, the Chinatown/ID Coalition, has posted a “Stop the Sweeps” petition, and the Friends of Little Saigon urged “proactive, long-term strategies” that are “more thoughtful and durable than convenient,” such as “[r]amping up efforts to stabilize the homeless through shelter, moving them into more permanent housing, and implementing assistance programs to keep them in the housing.” On Wednesday, Yin Yu of the CID Coalition said the pro-sweeps contingent “doesn’t represent the neighborhood,” and said her group wanted “for folks to be housed and not swept.”
Deputy mayor Fong’s letter also enumerated some of the situations in which the city might still need to do sweeps. These included encampments that are partially blocking a sidewalk (the initial directive explicitly said that only tents “completely blocking an entire sidewalk” would be removed); encampments where illegal activity is taking place; encampments in public parks and golf courses; and encampments in front of public libraries.
Fong’s examples suggest that the mayor’s office is moving back toward its pre-COVID position on which encampments require immediate removal. Reinstating the total ban on sleeping in parks and publicly owned rights-of-way, for example, would give the Navigation Team the authority to remove almost any encampment on the grounds that it constitutes an “obstruction,” as was the practice before COVID. Allowing the city to sweep all encampments near libraries, as opposed to those blocking library entrances, would represent a return to the old policy of removing encampments that are not only blocking but merely in the vicinity of a public facility, in this case public libraries that are currently closed.
HSD has said that about 70 percent of people who have received referrals to shelter since the pandemic began have actually showed up to the shelters to which they were referred, but exact numbers can be hard to come by without reaching out directly to shelter providers one by one. For example, about 29 people living at the Ballard Commons were referred to shelter, according to HSD. Most of those referrals were to one shelter and one tiny house village run by the Low-Income Housing Institute, whose director, Sharon Lee, says they are all still staying at those locations. Beck said the Navigation Team measures its success by “did we make an offer and did we reduce the barriers” to moving inside, not on actual enrollments, which are “complicated to track.”
It’s clear, though, that a large number of people at the last three sweeps neither “accepted” the city’s offer of shelter nor ended up indoors. It was easy to see them walking down the hill in all directions, or gathering their stuff in piles just outside the police perimeter. In addition to feeling vulnerable to the virus, as Davis does, people may refuse shelter because they have physical or mental health conditions that make it hard for them to stay in congregate settings, because they worry about theft and personal safety, because the shelter they’re offered doesn’t allow partners or pets, or because they don’t trust the city based on previous negative interactions, for example.
Up in Ballard, outreach workers are still trying to locate all the people who were displaced by the city’s sweep of the Commons two weeks ago. Joshua Perme, outreach manager for The Bridge Care Center near the park, said he has managed to locate about 70 percent of the people who had been staying at the Commons and are now spread out across Northwest Seattle, from Golden Gardens to Commodore Way in Magnolia. He believes people are less secure now than when they were staying together in a single location. “If we’re going to tell people that they can’t be where they are, we need something better than ‘We have a couple of shelter beds and whatever you can’t carry, we’re going to destroy,’” he said.
“People know that the city’s moratorium on sweeps is over. They don’t necessarily understand why that is—it’s not like the agencies or businesses or anything else that they would frequent are open to help them,” Perme continued. “Those of us that are open are doing it in a very different, and sometimes inefficient, way, but we’re trying. It’s just a lot of uncertainty in a life that already has too much uncertainty.”
Erica C. Barnett has covered Seattle politics since 2001 for print and online media. Read her latest at The C Is for Crank.
Featured image by Erica C. Barnett