Seattle city officials on Monday removed an unsanctioned encampment in Ballard Commons Park that had increasingly frustrated housed neighbors as it grew, though federal guidelines advise against breaking up camps during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended cities do not remove homeless encampments unless individual units of housing are available and warned that doing so could cause people to disperse and infectious disease to spread. The city said in March it would not remove encampments, except under extreme circumstances, in order to focus on outreach during the pandemic.
The city team tasked with outreach and encampment removals had 13 units of individual shelter to offer people Monday morning, including some spaces for couples. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said 15 people had been counted Monday morning living at the park, and the city “had the resources to accommodate all requests” for shelter.
The afternoon before, however, more than 20 tents could be counted in the park, and outreach workers estimated more than 40 people were living there. The notice to remove the encampment was posted in the area Saturday morning, said Human Services Department spokesman Will Lemke. By Monday morning, several people had already packed up and left.
“This decision (to remove the encampment) was made to ensure the public health and safety of everyone, including people living here,” Lemke said.
As of Monday, 17 homeless people in the area had been diagnosed with hepatitis A since mid-February. The new cases were part of a growing local outbreak disproportionately affecting people experiencing homelessness, though housed neighbors also worried about its spread. People who are homeless are at greater risk for contracting hepatitis A because they often lack sufficient access to running water and bathrooms.
A spokeswoman for Public Health – Seattle & King County said the agency had not discussed specific encampments with the city, but agreed with the CDC guidelines.
“Generally, we have emphasized to the City of Seattle the importance of this CDC guidance from a public health/communicable disease perspective in the context of our COVID-19 response,” Public Health spokeswoman Kate Cole told The Seattle Times by email.
Joseph Eskew, 42, moved to the park from the University District a month ago to access portable toilets placed in the park. He said he lost his housing six months ago, after losing work as the general manager of the Ballard Jimmy John’s.
“There isn’t one person that I know of who would choose to stay in a tent if you came and offered them a house tomorrow,” Eskew said.
Eskew said ongoing health issues have put him at additional risk for contracting COVID-19, and when he tried getting into downtown shelters he found them full. Eskew also had a voucher from the state’s Housing and Essential Needs program to help him pay rent, but said he hadn’t been able to find a spot during the pandemic.
After the removal, Eskew was able to get into an enhanced shelter spot through the Navigation Team at the Navigation Center in the Chinatown-International District.
It’s better to have a roof, Eskew said, but now he faces new challenges: He struggles with an addiction to methamphetamine, and he says he is now surrounded by people who are using. To Eskew, the encampment removal was “unnecessary.”
Outreach manager Josh Perme of The Bridge Care Center, an outreach program of Quest Church located next to the park, said while the city has created roomier spaces for people already in shelter during the pandemic, there are still too few individual shelter spaces available for people who are currently living outside. Congregate shelters are full — and even if there were spaces available, Perme said he’d recommend against his clients going there for fear of catching COVID-19 or another infectious disease.
“All we’ve done is spread them out,” Perme said of his clients in the park and the encampment removal. “My job is going to become infinitely harder.”
The Navigation Team, the city team of police officers and outreach workers who remove encampments and make shelter referrals, had been visiting the park frequently in recent weeks to distribute hygiene kits and make connections. Nineteen people had been referred to shelter through this process, said Lemke.
The Navigation Team’s visits and garbage collection had improved the cleanliness of the area, said Sara Bates, program director at the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church Edible Hope Kitchen on the eastern edge of the park. But Bates said she was heartbroken to watch the removal Monday.
“This is just a huge disruption to the lives of the people who have been living here for the past almost six weeks,” Bates said.
Bates said her diocese has asked Gov. Jay Inslee to use hotels to get more homeless people into individual shelter — an option she sees as safer than any other form of shelter for the people she serves.
Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss, who represents Ballard, said his office received a number of complaints about the encampment in recent weeks. The area also drew media attention for the growing number of tents.
Strauss said he saw the Navigation Team’s work leading up to the removal as a good example of what the team can do to manage encampments, but was critical of the removal itself. Strauss said he anticipated more tents on Shilshole Avenue, Seaview Avenue Northwest and in Ballard’s green spaces as a result.
“Encampment removals that move people around our community without addressing underlying issues are not in line with my values,” Strauss told The Seattle Times.
In a City Council briefing Monday morning, other council members questioned the reasoning behind the Ballard Commons removal. Council President M. Lorena González noted the city’s coronavirus policy allows removals only when encampments bar access to public streets and sidewalks and create public safety hazards.
She wondered whether Monday’s removal met those requirements.
Strauss said waste removal and hygiene services were leading to improvements at the site before the removal.
“If there’s been noncompliance with a stated policy, it’s incumbent upon us to hold the executive accountable,” González said.
“I agree and share your concerns,” Strauss said.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis said he visited the Ballard Commons encampment a few weeks ago.
“That particular encampment was in a really difficult state in terms of posing public health challenges to the rest of the neighborhood, so some kind of intervention there was certainly warranted,” he said.
In a statement to The Seattle Times, a Mayor’s Office spokesperson said the city’s Navigation Team has offered every person they’ve worked with in the last few weeks “an opportunity to stay in a safer place.”
“Unfortunately, and for reasons the City cannot control, not every offer for shelter, storage and help is taken,” the Mayor’s Office statement said.
Neighbors who stopped by to watch the removal said they were glad the park was being cleaned, but expressed concern about where the people living there would go.
Ballard resident Ryan Welch, 40, dropped by to see if he could help. He felt for the campers, he said, who had few places to shower or wash their clothes.
“I’m glad it’s getting cleaned up, but I’m kind of disappointed in just seeing dispersing versus mobilizing them to a safer, more efficient facility,” Welch said.
Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.