Seattle officials removed an encampment of roughly 20 tents and structures Wednesday morning in the stairwell next to the city’s Navigation Center, an enhanced, 24-7 homeless shelter modeled after San Francisco’s shelter of the same name.

Seattle’s Navigation Team, a group of police officers and social workers tasked with tent removals and shelter referrals, gave campers at the Chinatown-International District site 24-hour notice of the removal, after the encampment was deemed hazard by the city. Removals that don’t require 72-hour notice, such as hazards and obstructions, typically make up the bulk of the Navigation Team’s work, but on March 17, the city said it would only remove encampments under extreme circumstances because of the novel coronavirus. 

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) had trouble patrolling the stairwell with the tents and determined the area was a public safety concern, Human Services Department spokesman Will Lemke said. Police had been paying close attention to the area because of suspected drug activity and sales of stolen items. According to court records, a homeless man in the area also was charged last week with rape and felony violation of a domestic violence court order after allegedly raping a woman in her tent April 11.

“SPD has documented that because they haven’t been able to effectively patrol the area that they feel that there’s a growing public safety impact of them being there,” Lemke said. He also said the city was concerned about the health impacts of having people clustered so closely together.

Out of nine people encountered at the site this morning, three accepted referrals to shelter, Lemke said, including two referrals to new tiny houses created by the city during the pandemic.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

While the daily number of local, confirmed COVID-19 cases in the general population has declined since late March and early April, positive diagnoses have dramatically increased among people experiencing homelessness in King County. A simultaneous hepatitis A outbreak also has been growing and disproportionately affecting people without housing. 

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new guidance in March urging cities not to clear encampments unless individual housing units are available. Doing so would increase the risk of spreading infectious disease, including COVID-19, when people disperse, according to the CDC. 

The CDC had also urged cities to ensure access to 24-hour restrooms nearby or set up mobile toilets and hand-washing stations for encampments with 10 or more people. The city had distributed 148 hygiene kits in the area since the beginning of March, according to Lemke, but had not set up portable hygiene facilities.  

In Wednesday morning’s rain, campers could be seen moving their belongings from the stairwell one block over to South Weller Street, which was lined with more than 30 tents and structures. 

“They don’t give us a lot of time to move,” Shing Lam, a 56-year-old moving a cart full of blankets, said. “At my age, it’s hard to move as fast as we want to.” 

Lemke said the Navigation Team had offered everyone on site shelter. The city was also providing transportation to the shelters, Lemke said

Lam said he had been offered shelter outside the neighborhood, but didn’t want to leave the area because he worked in the Chinatown-International District 

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He wasn’t sure why the removal was taking place. “They’re scared of us because we’re poor,” Lam said. 

Daniel Malone, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), which operates the Navigation Center, said his outreach managers had no prior knowledge of the removal. Navigation Center staff had been picking up debris and handing out garbage bags and gloves to people living outside, Malone said, and sometimes administering naloxone in emergencies. 

At the encampment, there was “a clear, visible expression of tremendous unmet need, and unmet need is often accompanied by safety hazards,” Malone said. “If the particular area is especially unsafe, then something better needs to be made available to people rather than just scattering them.” 

Malone said DESC outreach leaders held a meeting Thursday to discuss what additional resources could be made available for people in the area. Seattle police participated, Malone said. 

“There was no talk of a sweep,” he said.

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