One of the most obvious sidewalk-level impacts of the COVID-19 epidemic, in Seattle as well as other West Coast cities, has been the proliferation of homeless encampments in public spaces. Prior to the epidemic, the encampment-clearing Navigation Team, aided by the police and the parks department, were removing about 100 encampments a month, 96 percent of them without providing any prior notice, outreach, or offers of shelter or services to the people living there. Since mid-March, the city reports that the Navigation Team has shifted its role and is now offering information about “expanded shelter resources,” testing referrals, and hygiene kits that include bars of soap—not terribly useful without a ready source of running water.
However, the team was still doing sweeps—which the city refers to, in language that removes humans from the equation, as “cleans”—through mid-March. After that, they moved to doing “litter picks,” another odd term that implies people living unsheltered are wantonly tossing trash about, when the reality is that only a handful of established encampments get trash bags and pickup from the city. In all the “site journals” the team produces during their operations, the “before clean” photos are zoomed-in, prurient—a bottle of pee, an extreme close-up of a piece of feces on a sidewalk, a tight crop on two needles sitting on a ledge. The “after clean” shots, in contrast, are zoomed out, territorial—they take in the entirety of an area, demonstrating the fruits of a job well done.
But you can’t deny the encampments. They’re everywhere, from Ballard to Highland Park to Beacon Hill. The city, county, and state have failed to provide housing for the thousands of homeless people living unsheltered, and the thousands more who spend their nights on shelter floors, in transitional motel spaces, or moving from couch to street to couch. That was before the epidemic. Now, they’ve failed to provide safe places for most of these people to go.
The tents, sprouting everywhere, are the fruits of that inaction. There simply is no “good” story to tell on housing or shelter right now, because so many people are unhoused, and because the shelters aren’t safe. The city of Seattle has created just 95 new spaces—half of them in tiny houses, half in shelter—for people to sleep, and “solved” the problem of overcrowded shelters by opening bigger spaces so that people can sleep head to toe, six feet apart. People are trying to survive an epidemic in conditions no elected official would want for their own family members—sharing air, bathrooms, and common areas at a time when the rest of us are ordered to stay at home and far away from other people.
The county has opened hundreds of hotel rooms, but thousands more are needed, and the city has resisted even discussing the idea. On Monday morning, city council member Teresa Mosqueda quizzed staffers from the City Budget Office about what the city is doing to provide individual spaces for homeless people to shelter in place; the answer was that the city was “focused on trying to provide additional space for our existing shelters” and that the county was “taking the lead on isolation and quarantine rooms,” which was not what Mosqueda asked about.
Meanwhile, the tents proliferate. And even if the city decides to follow the lead of the county, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities and find the money to put people in hotels, it’s unclear what happens next. It seems impossible, in this moment, to think of returning to the old system of endless sweeps—if nothing else, the city is now in a budget crisis and the Navigation Team costs more than $8 million a year—but no one at any governmental level has proposed an exit strategy for all these people, whose current living situation is untenable in the long run. Elected officials say we have to deal with the immediate crisis in front of us and worry about funding and housing options later. Advocates say there has to be a solution that doesn’t retraumatize people by returning them to chaotic, overcrowded shelters. Right now, we’re still in a middle of a crisis, but things are also on hold. Perhaps that creates some space to consider our priorities, what we owe to each other, and the consequences of doing things the way we’ve always done them.