After a recent encampment removal in Ballard raised concerns about dispersing people during a public-health crisis, Seattle City Council members on Monday introduced an emergency budget amendment to more narrowly define when encampments can be removed during the coronavirus pandemic.

The city said in March that it would largely halt encampment removals in order to focus on outreach during community spread of the coronavirus, unless an encampment presented an extreme circumstance for accessibility and an “extraordinary public safety hazard” that put people at risk.

But Councilmember Tammy Morales, lead sponsor of the legislation, said the city’s recent encampment removals during the pandemic have demonstrated that the city’s March statement “was really just a statement” and that the pandemic rules needed to be formalized in legislation. Morales’ budget amendment would also attempt to prevent the city from using concerns about communicable disease to justify removing an encampment, as it did in the case of the Ballard removal.

“The fact that [removals continue] to happen has really eroded the trust of the folks in the homeless community,” Morales said, “but also the city at large as people are wondering why the city is saying one thing and we are doing another.”

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.

Passing the budget amendment would require a three-quarters “yes” vote from the council as well as Mayor Jenny Durkan’s signature, but the Durkan administration takes issue with Morales’ legislation. The legislation would “eliminate the city’s ability to fundamentally protect residents and businesses from not only COVID-19 but other public health and safety concerns,” a spokesperson from the mayor’s office said in a statement.

“While we are still reviewing the proposed bill at council, an initial review of the legislation indicates it would increase the risks to both encampment residents and impacted communities,” said mayoral spokesperson Kamaria Hightower. “It would essentially ensure that unsafe and dangerous encampments that pose a public safety threat could not be removed – even at locations where there have been a significant increase in crimes that impact both the residents of encampment and the neighborhood.”

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As tents grew around Ballard Commons Park in April, neighbors began to express fear for their health and safety. When the city removed the Ballard Commons encampment, officials cited public safety and concerns around disease transmission of both hepatitis A and COVID-19 as reasons for the removal. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, says local officials should not remove encampments during the COVID-19 crisis unless there are individual units of housing available. Clearing encampments, according to the CDC, “can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers” which “increases the potential for infectious disease spread.” 

More than 40 people lived at the Ballard Commons encampment before signs were posted on Saturday, May 2, warning of an encampment removal the coming Monday, according to outreach workers. By Monday morning, most residents appeared to have already left. The city had 13 units of individual shelter to offer, and officials said they “had the resources to accommodate all requests” for shelter.

Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said the city’s practicearound removals have resulted in people picking up their things and moving elsewhere in the communityIf one worry about growing encampments is disease, dispersal could make things even worse, Mosqueda said. 

My biggest concern is that the second that the sign goes up that there will be a removal, people do take it onto themselves to move,” Mosqueda said. “Once that sign goes up, you’ve lost your chance to address whatever public health crisis is there.” 

Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness executive director Alison Eisinger said that advocates, the city and the county need to work closely together to dramatically increase the number of individual rooms available for homeless people, as the CDC has advised.

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“There is no way that the city has enough shelter available to offer to every person who lacks shelter,” Eisinger said. “What the city has failed to do is to respond to a public health emergency with a public health emergency response.”

The proposed legislation would amend the 2020 budget so that no funds could be used to remove unsanctioned encampments during the public health emergency, unless the plan for removal met several conditions. 

If an encampment constitutes an “active health threat,” excluding communicable diseases, the encampment could be removed only if three conditions were met: public health resources were deployed firstthose resources did not resolve the concern and officials expected that moving people would fix the issue.   

The only other ways encampments could be removed under the proposed legislation are if they pose an immediate hazard, create fire or safety hazards to infrastructure, narrow sidewalk space to less than 4 feet, block curb ramps, building entrances, exits or bike lanes, or if they’re located on playgrounds.  

Councilmember Andrew Lewis, chair of the Select Committee on Homelessness, said he planned to hear the legislation in his committee next week, but he was reserving judgment on it until he could hear from public health officials.

According to an email sent to homeless outreach providers last week, the city had planned to clear two more encampments this week: one in the area of the Navigation Center, a 24-hour enhanced shelter in Little Saigon, and an encampment at Eighth Avenue South and South King Street. Both encampments have grown rapidly during the pandemic. 

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