An emergency city council bill to restrict homeless encampment removals has generated harsh backlash from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and neighborhood organizations as tent encampments have grown during the spread of the novel coronavirus.

After nearly two hours of public comment at a Wednesday city council meeting, deputy mayors Mike Fong and Casey Sixkiller as well as Police Chief Carmen Best and Fire Chief Harold Scoggins argued against the legislation, saying it would restrict their ability to remove encampments for public safety reasons. Advocates and workers from the homeless services community criticized the encampment removals as harmful – and not in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that generally advises against removing encampments.

An online petition opposed to the bill has drawn thousands of signatures, many of them from Chinatown-International District residents, while local public health workers, homeless service providers and academics have signed a letter of support for the legislation.

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.

But little clarity around what the city’s policies on encampments should be has come from Public Health – Seattle & King County. Public Health director Patty Hayes, who was present at the meeting, instead emphasized the work officials have done during the outbreak to make shelters less crowded and quickly set up isolation and quarantine spaces as a model for the rest of the country.

When asked which circumstances Public Health believes should necessitate encampment removals during the pandemic, a spokesperson for the agency pointed The Seattle Times to CDC guidance, which recommends that cities do not remove encampments unless individual units of housing are available. The guidance warns that clearing encampments can cause people to disperse, break connections with service providers and increase the risk of spreading infectious disease.

“Cities use this guidance as they manage the complex decisions involved with encampments,” Public Health spokesperson Sharon Bogan said in an email. “Public health provides connections to case managers to help people stay connected to important services or resources.”

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The council declined to take action on the legislation at the end of Wednesday’s 5 1/2-hour meeting and planned to pick it up again at a committee meeting June 10.

The city’s crisis of unsheltered homelessness  is a persistent Seattle wound and frequent political flashpoint. As of last year’s one-night count of homelessness, more than 3,500 people were living unsheltered in Seattle, many of them in tents, cars and other structures not meant for human habitation.

The public health crisis has only exacerbated the desperation outside: As shelters have slowed intakes during the pandemic and other outreach services have disappeared, growing encampments have clustered around the few available resources in the city for people living outdoors.

The bill, proposed by Councilmember Tammy Morales, attempts to codify city policy around encampments during the pandemic and narrow the circumstances under which encampments can be removed. It would limit funding for encampment removals unless the encampments meet certain thresholds, like if they are active health threats (excluding the transmission of communicable diseases like COVID-19), 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 are located in play areas.

The bill, however, would need the mayor’s signature to become law, and the Mayor’s Office has strenuously objected to the legislation. In a strongly worded letter to city councilmembers sent last week, Deputy Mayor Mike Fong argued the bill would, among other things, not allow the city to remove encampments that posed a public safety risk and “would effectively authorize camping across the city.”

City officials said in March that encampment removals would be suspended unless there was both an extreme circumstance that caused a significant barrier to accessibility of city streets and sidewalks as well as an “extraordinary public safety hazard” that put people at risk.

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But with limited individual shelter spaces for people sleeping outside, recent encampment removals in Ballard and the Chinatown-International District have raised concerns about how the city is applying its pandemic-era policy to encampments.

Seattle is not the only city grappling with how to interpret CDC guidance amid a growth in encampments. Both Portland and San Francisco have turned to what many would consider a radical stopgap: sanctioned tent encampments with hygiene facilities to try and keep people living outside safer during the spread of the virus.

Portland, which has opened three sanctioned camping areas with more than 30 tents per site, is now seeking the input of local public health officials on when large encampment removals can resume.

“Because encampments have obviously increased, especially in the last couple of weeks, we did seek specific guidance to deal with homeless encampments in Portland,” said Portland city spokesperson Heather Hafer. “We’re still waiting for the outcome of that one.”

San Francisco’s public health department says it is also following CDC guidance, but leaves room for “clear, supportive relocation plans if tents need to be to be moved due to safety, fire and sanitation issues,” according to San Francisco Public Health spokesperson Brent Andrew.

The city has additionally opened “safe sleeping” villages of tents spaced 6 feet apart during the pandemic.

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Earlier this month, San Francisco Mayor London Breed tweeted her rationale for doing so.

“So while in normal times I would say that we should focus on bringing people inside and not sanctioning tent encampments, we frankly do not have many other options right now,” she wrote on Twitter. “Having places with resources serving people in the neighborhood is better than unsanctioned encampments.”

Seattle has opened 72 new units to shelter nearly 100 people, including a new sanctioned encampment of highly coveted tiny houses, for people who are not currently in shelter during the pandemic. The city has also made nearly 300 referrals to shelter through its Navigation Team, the same team of police officers and social workers tasked with removing encampments, and distributed thousands of hygiene kits to people outside.

But Seattle has stayed away from sanctioning tent encampments themselves during the pandemic, and long-term plans for getting people into housing face the uncertainty of a major projected budget shortfall. 

Toward the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Esther Lucero, CEO of the Seattle Indian Health Board, criticized a lack of coordination and creativity among city efforts as organizations like hers grapple with some of the impacts associated with encampments. She cited overdoses, sexual violence, shootings and drug activity occurring at nearby encampments as her staff has sought to intervene – and a lack of resources.

“These are people we love and our relatives that we serve, and when they allow us to serve them we do it well,” Lucero said. “But we’re not getting any help.”

Jessica Kwon, a REACH case manager in the Chinatown-International District, also described a difficult process for getting people living outside into shelter. There were delays in hearing about whether clients had been accepted into shelter space, she said, far more demand for spaces than there were spaces available and a loss of trust when clients can’t get into shelter despite their best efforts.

“We’re doing the best we can with minimal resources,” Kwon said. “And it’s not working.”

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