Seattle’s Navigation Team, the group of police officers and outreach workers who remove homeless encampments within the city, will pause a significant amount of its encampment-removal work “to prioritize COVID-19 outreach,” according to a Tuesday afternoon announcement from the city’s Human Services Department.
Most of the encampments removed by the city are classified as obstructions, but according to Tuesday’s release, the Navigation Team will not clear these kinds of encampments unless they present “an extreme circumstance” that blocks city streets or sidewalks as well as “an extraordinary public safety hazard” that puts people at risk.
The announcement arrived after both advocates and elected officials urged the city to stop removals during the novel coronavirus pandemic, particularly at a time when shelters are already under pressure to observe social-distancing rules and decrease the number of people crowding into the same spaces.
“The city’s practices have caused hardship, damage and harm, and the new plan is long overdue,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.
In interviews Monday, City Councilmembers Tammy Morales, Kshama Sawant and Teresa Mosqueda said they believed the city should discontinue encampment removals. The city doesn’t have enough capacity to shelter everyone in encampments, much less shelter everyone in spaces where they can observe social- distancing recommendations, the council members said.
“We know that people without access to hygiene are going to be more susceptible” to the virus, Morales said. “Moving people around isn’t going to solve this problem. If we had more tiny house villages where people could go, with access to showers and bathrooms and hot water, that would be great. But until that’s the case, forcing people to keep picking up and moving isn’t going to help.”
In addition to Tuesday’s Navigation Team announcement, the Human Services Department also said the city would set up “portable toilets, hand-washing stations and four hygiene trailers” around the city for people who don’t have easy access to hand-washing to protect themselves from COVID-19.
The facilities will be staffed and include both garbage and needle disposal, according to the city, although the city did not yet have details on where the facilities would be located. The city also will expand its garbage-collection program with homeless encampments, known as the “purple bag” program, from 12 sites to 16 in coming days.
The announcement arrived a week after some cities with significant homeless populations in California deployed dozens of hand-washing stations to protect people from contracting and spreading the illness.
Few options for hand-washing have been accessible 24/7 for people who live outside in Seattle. Six city-funded restrooms are available at all hours of the day, and only three have sinks. With Seattle Public Library locations closed, there are even fewer places to go — though the city Parks Department has continued its shower program at five community centers, and all parks bathrooms remain open despite other parks closures.
As of last Friday, the Navigation Team has been to 172 sites, delivered 462 flyers on COVID-19 and handed out hygiene kits that include soap and water to 126 people since the beginning of the month.