by Erica C. Barnett
(This article was previously published on The C is for Crank and has been reprinted with permission.)
More than six weeks after the Seattle-based Public Defender Association (PDA) launched its Co-LEAD program in Burien, the diversion program has come home to Seattle and began serving five homeless clients last week. Co-LEAD provides hotel rooms, case management, and other basic supports to people experiencing homelessness who have been in the criminal justice system and lack legal options for making money during the COVID-19 pandemic. After launching the program in Burien in April, the PDA had hoped to enroll some of the people who were dispersed throughout the city during several recent encampment sweeps, but were unable to do so because the city moved ahead with the removals before Co-LEAD case workers could identify and enroll new participants.
Since announcing the “suspension” of encampment removals except in the most “extreme” circumstances, Mayor Jenny Durkan has overseen three major encampment sweeps, removing dozens of tents from three locations in Ballard and the International District. The latest two removals were last week.
The city says it did weeks of prior outreach at every encampment it has removed during the pandemic, a claim that some people living in the encampments contradicted. On its blog and in a series of bellicose Twitter posts, HSD said that 63 people were referred to shelter during two encampment removals last week and claimed that “some campers admitted” to showing up from somewhere else on the morning of the sweep just to get shelter referrals. HSD has not responded to questions about how many of those people actually showed up at shelter, how many people simply dispersed before the morning of each sweep, and how many people who showed up at shelter are still indoors.
Despite calls from advocates and the city council to move people living outdoors into individual rooms, as the CDC recommends, the Durkan Administration has continued moving people into mass shelters and tiny house villages, saying that people are more at risk living outdoors than they are living in congregate settings. (Generally speaking, the CDC disagrees.) People living at the Ballard Commons were removed on May 4; the camps on South King and South Weller Streets, in the International District, followed on May 20 and May 21, respectively.
Twice in a row, Co-LEAD has hoped to move at least some displaced encampment residents into blocks of hotel rooms it has reserved around the Seattle area, but has been unsuccessful.
In the International District, where LEAD, which in normal times is a program that keeps low-level offenders out of jail by providing case management and connections to services, again offered to enroll people in Co-LEAD and move them to hotels, the program actually had the support of neighbors who wanted the two encampments gone. In a letter to Durkan, nine organizations in the Chinatown International District, including Interim Community Development Association, asked the mayor to “bring all possible resources to bear to serve the needs of the people living unhoused on South King and South Weller [Streets], preferably sheltering these individuals in permanent or transitional housing, which includes motel/hotel/quarantine sites” before doing the sweeps.
After trying to get people into hotels, the letter continued, the mayor should “prioritize the sweep happening along South Weller Street, but delay the removal of the smaller encampment on South King Street” so that Co-LEAD could have two weeks to get people living there into the new program. “Programs such as Co-LEAD should be provided [for] two weeks to offer motels to the homeless at South King; consequently, we are willing to allow the South King encampment removal to be delayed until Sunday, May 31st,” the organizations wrote.
The encampment removals went ahead on schedule despite the groups’ request. But the Seattle Police Department is working with LEAD to enroll people living in another downtown encampment, on the Second Avenue Extension in Pioneer Square, in the program. As of last Friday, five people from that encampment had been moved to hotels, according to PDA deputy director Jesse Benet. Benet said the PDA already has a list of 15 people living around Second Avenue who qualify for the program, and SPD has a list of another 10 so-called prolific offenders from the Pike-Pine area. The city has given LEAD approval to enroll up to 120 Seattle participants in the program.
Tomorrow afternoon, the city council’s special committee on homelessness will take up legislation, sponsored by councilmember Tammy Morales, that would define the conditions under which encampments can be removed during the pandemic. Deputy Mayor Mike Fong, who wrote a six-page letter to council members calling the legislation “as poorly drafted and analyzed as I’ve ever seen,” will be at the meeting, as will homeless advocates and representatives from the King County Public Health department.
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: People bundle up items to drag outside the police barricades during an encampment removal on South Weller Street last week. (Photo: Erica C Barnett)