A homeless encampment removal Thursday morning in Little Saigon drew roughly 20 protesters to police barricades, as debate flares in Seattle over whether the city should break up camps during the coronavirus pandemic.
The removal of a long stretch of tents on South Weller Street was the second in the Chinatown-International District this week: The first, under I-5 on South King Street, took place Wednesday.
As homelessness resources have dwindled and encampments have swelled during the crisis, community groups frustrated by visible drug use, litter and reports of gunshots and violence have asked the city to take action. But others, including some Seattle City Council members, say the city has not been following its own pandemic-era policies on encampment removals, and have advocated for tighter restrictions on when the city can clear tents.
The city’s Navigation Team, the group of police officers and social workers tasked with encampment removals and referrals, has removed four encampments in the span of a month, citing public health and safety issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends cities leave encampments in place to prevent the spread of infectious disease unless they are able to move campers to individual units of housing.
To that end, the city’s team has also made 270 referrals to shelter, a mix of individual, couple and congregate spaces, since the beginning of the pandemic — though it’s unclear how many people have dispersed into the community to avoid the removals themselves.
“I think that the longer an encampment stays in place, that becomes a focal point for criminal activity,” said Tara Beck, director of the Navigation Team. “It’s a quality-of-life issue.”
Few debate that dangerous conditions existed inside the South Weller Street encampment. With many shelters slowing intakes as a result of social distancing, the city’s large unsheltered population has clustered around the few places people are able to find some help in the form of outreach, hygiene or supplies. Camps like South Weller Street represent both danger and opportunity for people living outside: In interviews, South Weller Street camp residents said they were drawn there because they believed they would be safer among others, but also expressed fear of violence caused by criminals preying on the people on the block.
Michaela Burgess, 21, moved to the encampment two months earlier with her boyfriend. There had been gunshots nearby, she said, and violence from the local drug dealers. But after getting kicked out of abandoned homes, Burgess decided she had a better shot at getting help on South Weller Street outside the Navigation Center, a 24-hour enhanced shelter next door, than a tent away from resources in Capitol Hill.
“It’s terrifying,” she said on a recent Tuesday while her 14-week-old puppy, Kai, gnawed at a black sneaker.
Burgess, who said she struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues resulting from a history of sexual abuse as a young teen, carries pepper gel — better than spray for aiming at people and not having it blow back in her face. Despite the chaos around her, she pushed her boyfriend to stay on South Weller as the encampment grew, hoping it would attract the attention of outreach.
The plan worked. After notice of the removal was posted by the Navigation Team earlier in the week, Burgess’ case manager was able to find her a spot at a local shelter where her dog, training to be a service animal, and her boyfriend could also stay.
As for the encampment removal, Burgess was skeptical it would make anyone else safer.
“They’re going to find a new block to set this up and then you’re going to have the same problem in a different area,” Burgess said. “We need to be building more tiny houses and offering more housing to people. There’s tons of people that want it.”
The community groups that wrote to Mayor Jenny Durkan said they hoped the city would focus on more long–term solutions to the encampments — an issue the Chinatown-International District has been dealing with for many years.
The area has already experienced problems stemming from xenophobia during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Chong Wa Benevolent Association. Businesses started facing COVID-19-related losses even before the lockdown, Chong Wa president Mei-Jui Lin and former president Sue-May Eng said, and white supremacist stickers were recently stuck to utility poles.
The encampments make residents feel even less safe, they said.
“We want to help the homeless people, put them in a safe and healthy place,” Lin said. “But because we don’t have a so-called permanent solution, we don’t have a plan, they camp there, create issues and it comes to grow bigger.”
Friends of Little Saigon (FLS), another organization that wrote to the mayor with concerns about the encampment, described removals without systemic changes as “short-term fixes” that are “costly and disruptive to all involved.”
“When encampments have been removed in other neighborhoods, people have relocated to the International District,” FLS operations director Valerie Tran wrote in an email.
She said the organization hoped encampment residents would be offered appropriate shelter options and mental health and substance use treatment as needed.
“In the long run, there needs to be more affordable housing so that low-income households do not fall into homelessness, further exacerbating the issue,” Tran wrote.
On the morning of the South Weller Street encampment removal, police blocked off both ends of the street as camp residents dragged their belongings outside the barricades in the rain and protesters held signs advocating for fewer police on the Navigation Team.
The Navigation Team had counted 45 tents and one structure, including several tents that looked like they had been abandoned, said city spokesman Kevin Mundt. The city had 34 shelter units to offer people that morning, Mundt said, including two tiny homes.
Sixty people from South Weller Street had been referred to shelter through Navigation Team outreach since April 1, according to Mundt, though the city did not track how many people had arrived into shelter. Nine people from the South King Street removal on Wednesday had also been referred to shelter, Mundt said.
But in the chaos of the morning’s removal, REACH outreach workers said they were not allowed inside the barricades to connect with clients. Some camp residents decided their best bet was to simply move to another encampment.
Kimber Henegar, 49, was one of them. She hadn’t been able to find one of the Navigation Team’s housing navigators, so her plan was to set up a new tent across the bridge. She was familiar with the encampment removal process: In January, she left the South Dearborn Street encampment with two shopping carts of belongings as the city cleared her camp.
“Every time they come along, they get bogged down with one conversation and then they forget about the rest of us and move on,” she said.
Henegar said she was frustrated with the city’s treatment of people like her.
“They treat us like we’re some schmucks, like we don’t know anything,” she said. “How did we make it all these years already?”
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.