People facing homelessness in Seattle have long had reasons to avoid emergency shelters. Now they have another: During a pandemic, crowding our most vulnerable neighbors into confined spaces could be a recipe for humanitarian disaster, and a health crisis for the whole city. Instead, the city of Seattle should support our unhoused community to shelter in place in ways that preserve safety, respect civil rights and flatten the disease curve for all Seattleites.
The novel coronavirus lays bare our fault lines, posing greatest risk to those already compromised physically and economically. But it also reveals our fates to be entwined. Whether in shelters, jails or detention centers, densely concentrating vulnerable people out of sight is a collective folly, exposing greater numbers to the disease, burdening our health infrastructure, and accelerating the spread of the disease through the population. COVID-19 teaches us that what we can’t see can still hurt us, and our crowded shelters could be a silent bomb waiting to explode.
King County’s shelter beds are breathtakingly inadequate, with roughly 6,000 emergency and transitional beds for at least 12,000 unhoused people. Even before the pandemic, the unhoused community was sometimes safer outdoors (from bedbugs, hepatitis and so on). But now, many local shelters cannot comply with requirements designed to slow the epidemic, limiting gatherings to fewer than 10 people, more than 6 feet apart. Worse, we already hear reports of shelter guests exhibiting symptoms, unable to be tested. Health professionals tell them to self-isolate, but where? While local officials have already sought additional emergency shelter and quarantine spaces to ease the crowding, it remains inadequate. Meanwhile, the remaining 6,000 people face an endless migration at precisely the time when we should all stay put. It may be safer to assist them in self-isolating on their own terms.
We call on the Seattle City Council to act immediately on its existing approval for up to 40 self-managed tent cities, tiny-house villages and safe parking lots. Further, where those options are unequal to the need, local authorities must facilitate alternatives where people may safely practice prevention and social distancing with the same dignity and autonomy afforded to other Seattleites. This includes a moratorium on impounding vehicle-homes to support our neighbors who are self-isolating in cars, vans and RVs. Their risk for COVID-19 increases without adequate support and infrastructure. Instead of devoting millions to displacement, that money should be spent on expanding mobile hygiene and medical services, and on supporting tents with hygiene facilities in place, where residents can get tested and isolate as necessary.
With the prospect of citywide lockdown looming, we have heard reactionaries and federal officials alike in recent years call to remove the homeless from public view, involuntarily if necessary. Some envision detention camps not unlike those at the U.S. border, and White House officials have reportedly explored sites for their placement. Opportunists may exploit COVID-19 to amplify this agenda. This is both morally disturbing and epidemiologically dangerous (as we have seen at the border, where many have already died of infectious disease). We must therefore ensure that Seattle’s emergency measures are founded from the beginning on principles of autonomy, self-management and support for voluntary self-isolation.
When the citywide order finally comes to shelter in place, all Seattleites must be afforded the same safety, dignity and fundamental rights. This demands the political will to address two emergencies simultaneously. While we have clearly acted less urgently on Seattle’s 2015 homeless “state of emergency” than on the pandemic, both are related. COVID-19 makes it imperative to learn the lesson of what past sweeps have taught us: Together, both teach us that an injury to one is an injury to all.