by Erica C. Barnett
(This article was previously published on The C is for Crank and has been reprinted with permission.)
If you’re looking for a takeaway from last Wednesday’s nearly six-hour hearing on legislation that would place some limits on the city’s authority to displace homeless people from encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s this: Nothing is going to change. Representatives from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration made it abundantly clear, loudly and repeatedly, that the mayor does not consider policies governing encampment sweeps to be a matter that can be legislated under any circumstance, and that now is also not the time for discussing non-legislative solutions, such as changes to the administrative rules governing encampment sweeps in general.
Not that they would be likely to consider changes to those rules anyway — in the view of Durkan and her Human Services Department, the Multi-Disciplinary Administrative Rules, or MDARs, allow the Navigation Team to remove encampments without any prior notice, outreach, or offer of services in almost any circumstance involving one or more tents in a space that could theoretically be accessed by the public. Some of these encampments block sidewalks and entrances to public buildings; in non-pandemic times, these present a clear-cut case. But the Navigation Team also uses the “obstruction” exemption to remove tents tucked into remote areas of public parks, along unpaved, gravel-covered roadway shoulders, and in other areas that aren’t generally used by the public but are technically public spaces. In the fourth quarter of last year, 96 percent of encampment removals were exempt from notice requirements because the Navigation Team deemed them to be “obstructions.”
The mayor holds the cards here; because the proposal is emergency legislation, it requires not only seven council votes but her signature to go into effect.
Senior deputy mayor Mike Fong began the executive branch’s assault on the legislation Wednesday by expressing incredulity that the city council was trying to prohibit the police from responding to crime in encampments, to prevent the public health department from addressing COVID-19 outbreaks, and to make it impossible for private property owners to report people for trespassing. In fact, the legislation still allows sweeps in many circumstances, including threats to public health and public safety, and trespassing remains illegal.
Specifically, the bill, sponsored by councilmember Tammy Morales, defines the “extreme circumstances” the Durkan Administration alluded to when it “suspended” encampment removals in March, allowing sweeps when encampments are blocking sidewalk access or access to a building, when an encampment poses a public health or safety threat, or when an encampment poses a threat to infrastructure (for example, if people were lighting fires at the base of a bridge). The restrictions would end when Durkan declares the COVID-19 state of emergency over, or at the end of the year, whichever comes first.
Deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller followed up by claiming that since the beginning of the pandemic, the Navigation Team had placed hundreds of people “into shelter.” In fact, by the Navigation Team’s own admission, only 29 percent of encampment residents who “accepted” referrals actually spent a night in shelter in the fourth quarter of last year. The Navigation Team says this percentage has increased dramatically during the pandemic, but the city has not provided information about how many people actually ended up in shelters after the last two sweeps in the International District, despite multiple requests. While the Navigation Team gets exclusive access to some beds, shelters have been fuller than usual because of the pandemic, and the reason “new” beds become available is because people leave, not because they are housed.
Finally, police chief Carmen Best recited a litany of the worst things that SPD has ever uncovered at encampments, going back to 2017, including sex trafficking, a man eating a sandwich full of maggots, and a laundry list of illegal items, including “meth, heroin, pills, machetes, swords, stolen property, guns,” and knives. If we allow encampments to exist, Best was arguing, all these horrors will continue “under cover, so to speak, the cover of the tents.” If we sweep the encampments out of existence, those crimes will disappear. Get rid of the tents, and the people sitting around exhibiting grotesque signs of mental illness will be cured or disappear.
Most of the crimes Best was describing, including drug dealing, gun and knife violence, and sex trafficking, happen more frequently in homes and inside buildings than they do in encampments; it is not the type of structure or kind of community a person lives in that causes crime, and Best presented no evidence that people living in tents are either inherently more criminal or more likely to commit the kinds of crimes she listed than people living in houses, apartments, or yurts.
Moreover, as councilmembers pointed out, displacing an entire community because a few people living in that community are committing crimes, including serious ones, does not make any of those people safer. In general, sweeping encampments leads to people being dispersed into the community, which is what happened last week, and removing dozens of people over the crimes of a few is not an approach police take to crimes that occur in any other setting. Police carried out a drug sting earlier this month that involved arrests at four tents, an apartment, and a house. Notably, no one called for removing all the other tenants from the apartment building, or for demolishing the house and tossing its contents in a dump truck. But that is routinely what happens at encampments, and the city argues‚ as Best did on Wednesday, that it’s for the good of their “vulnerable” residents.
The council and mayor’s office continued to argue Wednesday about CDC guidelines that say cities should not remove encampments during the pandemic unless they can offer each resident individual housing, such as a room in a hotel, rather than congregate shelter. Sixkiller said that the federal guidance was, “in fact, guidance,” not law, adding, “We want to make sure that … we don’t demonize congregate shelter because that is not what the CDC guidance says.” The CDC guidance does address existing congregate shelters, saying that they should be redistributed so that people can sleep further apart, but explicitly recommends against putting people in congregate shelters who are currently sleeping outside. Although Sixkiller initially said that there had been no COVID outbreaks in congregate shelters, amending that quickly to “just one,” King County Public Health director Patty Hayes later noted that 27 congregate shelters have reported COVID-19 cases.
Sixkiller emphasized that the city had provided some of the funding that King County has used to put people in hotels. However, he did not answer a pointed question from councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who wanted to know whether the mayor had “some philosophical objection to using hotel rooms.” Instead, Sixkiller pointed out that the pandemic would eventually end and FEMA funding, which is paying for hotel rooms in many other cities, would no longer be available. Sixkiller said that with a likely $300 million budget shortfall next year, the city needed to make sure that “we can sustain any new investments that we’re making over the long term.” However, no one has proposed putting people in hotels permanently. The argument that advocates have made, echoing the CDC, is that with so many hotel rooms sitting empty, it makes sense to put homeless people in them.
The meeting ended in a stalemate, with council members agreeing to take the legislation up again on June 10, and the mayor’s office offering a tepid agreement to have a discussion at some point about the administrative rules. In the meantime, two more weeks will pass without a policy governing when the Navigation Team can remove encampments during the pandemic.
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: A Pioneer Square encampment (Photo: Erica C Barnett)