Armed police officers far outnumbered the handful of unsheltered people who still lingered at an encampment at the Ballard Commons park this morning, two days after the city posted paper notices that the encampment, which has occupied the area since early March, had been deemed an “obstruction” and would be removed. The police stood around, chatting amongst themselves, until 9am, when it was time to roust people from their tents and get them to move along.
Officially, the city is no longer removing encampments unless they constitute an “emergency” and there are appropriate shelter beds available for every person living at a site. In reality, it would have been next to impossible to provide shelter, much less personalized shelter appropriate to each person’s health condition and situation, to the dozens of people who were living at the Commons and in front of the nearby Ballard Library before the notices went up.
Even with just 15 people remaining late this morning, according to the city’s official blog post about the sweep, there were only 12 beds available in enhanced shelters or tiny house villages. That means that if everyone had wanted a shelter bed, the options would quickly come down to a cot or mat on the floor at one of the large mass shelters that are still accepting clients—shared living spaces where infection can spread quickly, including COVID-19 spread. And the number of accessible beds was actually much lower than the city’s blog post lets on: Just 3 of the 12 beds were open to single men, who appeared to make up the vast majority of the people living at the Commons; the rest were for single women (seven) or couples (two).
The city did not say how many people actually accepted offers of shelter, only that there was shelter available for everyone who wanted it. Since April 22, according to HSD, the Navigation Team gave shelter referrals to 19 people. As I’ve reported, even in normal times when there is more turnover at shelters, a tiny fraction of referrals by the Navigation Team actually lead to shelter; most people who receive referrals never follow up, indicating either that the referral was unacceptable to them or that they didn’t have a way to get there.
Joseph, who had a broken foot, told me he had lived living at the Commons for several weeks after the winter-only emergency shelter where he was staying shut down. (To protect the privacy of vulnerable homeless people, and in acknowledgement of the fact that the people removed from the Commons today were experiencing trauma, I am not using their last names or running photos that include their faces.) He received a referral to the Navigation Center, and told me, “I have no idea what the Navigation Center is.” The center is located about six miles away in the International District—a trip that requires two buses and takes about an hour. According to an HSD spokesman, the Navigation Team did not offer transportation to the people who received shelter referrals this morning.
Joseph said he has had a voucher for housing for months, and has been working with Catholic Community Services to secure permanent supportive housing. He said this was the first time he has ever been contacted by the Navigation tTeam since moving to the Commons in April. “Look at all that stuff they’re throwing away,” he said, gesturing toward a pair of orange-vested team members who were tossing a tent and pile of items, including what looked like an old, wood-paneled stereo, into a waiting dump truck. “I’ve never seen anybody get their stuff back.”
The sweep came as a surprise to many advocates, as well as some within the Human Services Department itself. Just three days ago, HSD was touting its outreach to people living at the Commons, and there had been no public indication before this weekend that the agency considered the situation an “emergency” that required immediate removal. Examples of circumstances where an encampment would constitute an “emergency,” according to the city, include “living structures completely blocking the entire sidewalk, living structures prohibiting safe entry and exit from a building or use of a facility, or is a public safety danger to occupants and/or greater community.”
None of the tents at the Commons this weekend obstructed any part of the sidewalk, much less the entire thing, and there were no tents near the entrance to the library, the one public building that is open for a very limited purpose—to provide a restroom for people experiencing homelessness in the area, which until today primarily meant people living at the Commons. Nor did the city claim to have found any criminal activity taking place in the tents.
The only “public safety” or “health” justification HSD provided for the removal was a recent outbreak of hepatitis A, which, as of last month, included 11 people experiencing homelessness in Ballard. But new numbers released by King County Public Health today showed what the county called a “small reduction in cases,” with just six new cases among homeless people in Ballard. For comparison, there were five cases associated with a single restaurant, Señor Moose, that was shut down by the county for less than a week.
It’s unclear where the decision to sweep the Commons originated, although several people at the site speculated that it came after a KOMO report featuring a woman brandishing a gun and saying she planned to take “safety issues” at the park into her own hands. Last week, homeowners in the area circulated a petition demanding the tents be removed and suggesting that homeowners would sue the city for “emotional distress” and loss of property value. A spokesman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said the decision to remove the encampments was made “by HSD and in consultation with City stakeholders, including SPD, Parks, SPU, and the Mayor’s Office” in response to “deteriorating” conditions at the site.
If anything, the encampment has been significantly cleaner and more orderly in recent weeks than it was during the early days of the pandemic, when tents spilled onto sidewalks near the library and onto the actual park grounds. On Saturday, the encampment was quiet, with dozens of tents arranged on the parking strips and only one tent in the park itself, under a tree near the corner of the one-block grounds.
By 8:30 this morning, the place was already almost empty. Social service workers who showed up to observe the sweep said this morning’s action undermined the many weeks of work they’d done to build relationships with people living at the encampment. And it makes them harder to reach.
“With a lot of my clients right here, it was easy for me to give them the resources they need,” said Joshua Perme, outreach manager for The Bridge Care Center near the park. “Now, with all these people scattered to the four winds, I’m going to have to go back out and find them.” This afternoon, Perme said, he planned to meet with a volunteer who sewed fabric masks for all the encampment residents. “NowI’m going to have to put them in a backpack and go out and find all of them. I’ll make it happen, but it makes my job much harder.”
Howard, a man who has been living in his truck near the Commons, said he didn’t see the point of moving people from place to place. “It’s during a pandemic. Where are they going to go?” he said. “They still have to have a place to lay their head and go to sleep. I can kind of understand from the community perspective—if some single gal wants to bring her little kid out here to the park— but it’s not like you can run and take a leap into one of those apartments” overlooking the park.
Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, sent a letter to Durkan’s office this morning calling the encampment removal “rash, disrespectful, and unlikely to assist people in need of help in a crisis.” As I did, Eisinger visited the site over the weekend—on Sunday—and said that it was “clean, and aside from the fact that the handwashing unit is not working, the facilities seem to be well-used. There were many parks users engaging in normal activities across the space and on the adjoining streets.”
The people who sign petitions to remove homeless people from parks and importune the mayor to earn their vote by “doing something” about the visibility of urban poverty may indeed feel that they accomplished something. But the thousands of people currently trying to survive on the streets of Seattle in the middle of a global pandemic would be right to wonder why, if the city has the resources to send dozens of cops to remove 15 nonviolent people from a public park, it can’t do something to get them into a place where they’re actually safe. While the city offers cots in congregate shelters to people who are already vulnerable, an entire downtown hotel sits almost empty, racking up a bill of $1 million a month. We have the money. It’s just a question of priorities.