The story excerpted here originally appeared at Huffington Post, where you can read the entire piece.
Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood has long been home to a large concentration of homeless services. It has two of the city’s biggest shelters, several public feeding programs, and day centers that offer showers, restrooms, and gathering spaces for people with nowhere else to be.
Lately, though, Pioneer Square has become another kind of gathering place: one where tents and makeshift shelters are crowded inches apart and people congregate in clusters on the sidewalk, in defiance of Washington state’s social distancing orders during the coronavirus pandemic. Because most public restrooms are now closed, and the city has provided only a handful of portable toilets to make up for the loss, it has become necessary to watch one’s step. Last week, the head of a social services agency said she was walking to her car when she stepped in a pile of human waste that was sliding down the rainy street.
In Seattle, as in other cities up and down the West Coast, officials are cutting down on encampment sweeps, a controversial practice in which city employees — often police officers or sanitation workers — remove a homeless camp and dispose of tents and other property. The change is born out of necessity: Many shelters are no longer accepting new clients during the pandemic, and cities have been slow to offer hotel rooms or other housing to the people currently living on their streets. People simply have nowhere else to go ― which means cities are finally, at least temporarily, slowing the practice of removing them and their belongings from public spaces.
Advocates for the homeless say Seattle’s partial moratorium on encampment removals is, at best, an overdue first step. The question is whether the city is doing enough to keep those living in the encampments safe ― and whether the moratorium will stick once the COVID-19 crisis ends.
“It shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to understand how extremely damaging it is to uproot people, discard their personal possessions and survival gear, and not give them a solution to their homelessness,” said Alison Eisinger, head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and a vocal opponent of encampment sweeps.
Back in March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted new guidelines advising cities to stop removing encampments “unless individual housing units are available” and to ensure that encampments have access to 24-hour restrooms or portable toilets with sinks. Most cities on the West Coast have only partly followed these guidelines. Seattle and two large California cities ― Oakland and San Jose ― have all formally adopted partial moratoriums on encampment sweeps, while Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, have adopted less specific or informal policies that critics say allow too much leeway for sweeps to continue.
“At the beginning of this crisis, we realized very quickly that sweeps were going to be exactly contrary to public health,” said Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which pushed the CDC to issue its guidance. “The ability to shelter in place as much as possible in your own self-shelter environment, where you can at least have a tent wall between you and your neighbor, is better than a facility where it’s just an open area and the air is circulating and you’re all using the same sinks and toilets.”
Homelessness is hard on a person’s body, making people more susceptible to illness, like COVID-19, and more likely to develop chronic conditions at a younger age. The vulnerability of homeless people to disease outbreaks can, in turn, lead to broader public health implications.
“The message we’ve been trying to send is, it’s not just about people experiencing homelessness in your community,” Tars said. “This is about your entire community, because if you don’t want a hospital bed to be taken up when your grandmother, your brother or your sister needs that bed, you need to take steps now to make sure that bed is empty.”