1. On Tuesday, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis is expected to introduce legislation that would put ranked-choice voting—a type of election in which voters rank candidates according to their preference—on the November ballot alongside an existing initiative, I-134, that would allow voters to choose as many candidates as they want, a process called approval voting.
When presented with a validated initiative proposal, the council can put the measure on the ballot as-is, pass it as law themselves, or place an alternative measure on the ballot alongside the original initiative; if they put two measures on the ballot, the one that receives the most votes above a majority wins.
Ranked-choice voting, or instant-runoff voting, has been implemented in cities across the country, though in a slightly different form; in places with partisan like New York City, voters from each party use ranked choice voting to choose one person to move forward to the general election. In Seattle, which doesn’t have partisan elections, the top two candidates in the primary move forward to the general. Approval voting, in contrast, has only been implemented in two places in the US: Fargo, ND, and St. Louis, MO.
Advocates for ranked-choice voting argue that it elects leaders who are more representative of the general electorate. According to Fair Vote Washington spokesman Ben Chapman, ranked-choice voting produces “more civil, more issue-based campaigns, more voice for the voter and better representation for previously underrepresented communities.” Advocates for approval voting say their system gives a fair chance to candidates who tend to languish in a winner-takes-all system where voting for the candidate you really like can feel like “throwing away your vote.”
Cannabis store owner and former city council candidate Logan Bowers, a member of the Seattle Approves campaign, says the council should put Initiative 134 on the ballot as-is, without introducing a second measure that would impose a totally different system. Under its ethics rules, the council is not allowed to discuss I-134 (or any alternative) publicly until it starts formally considering legislation to put the proposal on the ballot, which it will do next week. Because of the ethics constraint, Lewis declined to comment on his potential competing initiative.
Bowers says the council is rushing through an alternative measure without giving it the kind of scrutiny approval voting received through its campaign and signature gathering process. “I don’t think they need to rush this; they should just let approval voting go through or not, and they can always [put forward] another proposal later,” Bowers said. “We shouldn’t push this through as a two-week summer project.” Chapman counters that ranked choice voting is already a “known quantity” in use in more than 50 places across the US. “We don’t want Seattle voters to be an experiment,” Chapman said.
2. Since last December, the Ballard Commons—a 1.4-acre park surrounded by apartments and kitty-corner from the Ballard library— has been closed, its skate bowl, spray park, and grassy fields just out of reach behind the tall metal fence that has kept unsheltered people from setting up tents in the area for the last seven months.
In a memo to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office April, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation recommended “fully reopening the park by summer,” but added that they recognized “we cannot be successful without strong, sustained support of the obstruction process” by the city’s Unified Care Team, a group of about 60 Parks, Department of Transportation, and Human Services Department employees that is in charge of removing encampments, including those that obstruct the use of public spaces.
Last week, sanitation crews and Parks Department employees showed up to remove the remains of a large, persistent encampment at the Ballard Commons park. From the outside, the removal looked exactly like every other encampment sweep: Tents, furniture, and household detritus disappeared into the back of garbage trucks as workers wandered around directing anyone still on site to leave. Hours later, crews installed a tall chain-link fence, identical to the ones that have become ubiquitous at former encampment sites around the city. Huge red “PARK CLOSED” signs emphasized the point: This park, once disputed territory, has been claimed. It will remain closed for at least six months for renovations, remediation, and, as District 6 City Councilmember Dan Strauss put it last week, “to allow the space to breathe.”
But the removal of the encampment at the Commons actually was different, because—for once, and contrary to what the city’s Human Services Department has always claimed is standard practice—nearly everyone at the encampment ended up moving to a shelter or housing, thanks to months of work by outreach providers and a hands-off approach from the city. At a press conference outside the Ballard branch library last week, Strauss heralded the results of the city’s “new way of doing encampment removals.”
While a humane approach like the one the city took at the Ballard Commons should serve as the baseline for how the city responds to encampments in the future, its success won’t be easy to replicate. That’s because there simply aren’t enough shelter beds, permanent housing units, or housing subsidies to accommodate all the residents of even one additional large encampment, much less the hundreds of encampments in which thousands of unsheltered people live across the city.
Before explaining why it would be premature, and potentially harmful, to praise the city for abandoning its “old” approach to encampments, it’s important to understand how the approach to this encampment really was different, and why it’s simplistic (and unhelpful) to refer to the removal of the encampment, and the closure of the park, as just another “sweep.”
Ordinarily, when the city decides to remove an encampment, the Human Services Department sends out an advance team, known as the HOPE Team, to offer shelter beds and services to the people living there and to let them know the encampment is about to be swept. The HOPE Team has exclusive access to some shelter beds, which makes it possible for the city to credibly claim it has “offered shelter” to everyone living at an encampment prior to a sweep. However, even the HOPE team is limited to whatever beds happen to be available, which tend to be in shelters with higher turnover and fewer amenities, like the Navigation Center in the International District. Mobility challenges, behavioral health conditions, and the desire to stay with a street community are some common reasons people “refuse” offers of shelter or leave shelter after “accepting” an offer. If someone needs a wheelchair ramp or a space they can share with their partner and those amenities are not available at the shelters that have open beds, the sweep will still go on.
At the Commons, in contrast, city outreach partners, including REACH and Catholic Community Services, spent months getting to know the 85 or so people living in the encampment, learning about their specific needs, and connecting them to resources that worked for them. More than 20 percent of the people living at the Commons had “significant medical issues” that many conventional shelters are not equipped to address, including Stage 4 cancer, emphysema, paralysis, and seizure disorders, REACH director Chloe Gale said last week. Eighty percent had serious behavioral health conditions, including addiction. One had been the victim of gender-based violence and did not feel safe going to shelter alone.
Eventually, outreach workers were able to find placements for nearly everyone living at the Commons, working with people on a one-on-one basis and building trust over months. The approach is time-consuming, costly, and resource-intensive—and it only works if there is sufficient shelter and housing available.
At last week’s press conference, Councilmember Strauss said that by “using a human-centered approach” the city is “giving [outreach providers] time for them to get get people inside, we’re finding and creating adequate shelter and housing. And [that approach] results in people getting inside rather than displaced.” On Monday, Strauss said during a council meeting that he had “begun working to bring a similar outcome to Lower Woodland Park,” where residents have been complaining about a large RV and tent encampment for months.
The problem—and a likely point of future friction for the city—is that the single biggest factor enabling this “human-centered approach” was the opening of dozens of new spots in tiny house villages and a Downtown Emergency Service Center-run hotel in North Seattle, which will provide permanent housing for dozens of people with severe and persistent behavioral health challenges. Those new resources, more than any outreach strategy or “new approach” by the city, enabled people to move, not from one park to another, but to places they actually wanted to go. Now that those shelter and housing slots are occupied, the city will revert to the status quo, at least until more shelter and housing becomes available.
The issue preventing the city from taking a person-by-person approach to encampments is only partly that Seattle fails to consider the individual needs of people living unsheltered; it’s also that the city has never taken seriously the need to fund and build shelter and housing that serves those needs on the level that will be necessary to make a visible dent in homelessness. This is changing, slowly—as Strauss noted last week, 2021 was the first year in which the city met its goal of spending $200 million a year on affordable housing—but the process of moving people inside will inevitably be slow and partial, especially if the city does not do significantly more to fund both shelter and housing.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data provided by the Human Services Department, the city has only added about 500 new shelter beds, and even that number is misleading, because it includes nearly 200 rooms in two temporary hotel-based shelters that will close down next month, sending providers scrambling to find placements for hundreds of people in the middle of winter.
Strauss acknowledged last week that the reason the city could declare the Ballard Commons a success story was that so many tiny house village units became available at once. “The reason that we were able to remove the encampment about our comments now over the last two and a half months is because the shelter availability has come online,” Strauss said.
A few hours later, at a meeting of the Ballard District Council, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones tried to inject a dose of realism into a conversation with homeowners who expressed frustration that they continue to see unhoused people in the area, including “one of the biggest car camping problems in the city.”
For example, one district council member asked, would the homelessness authority provide a person or team of people, along the lines of the Seattle Police Department’s community service officers, for Ballard residents to call when they see “someone repetitively harassing a business” or sleeping in their car?
Instead of offering meaningless reassurances, Dones responded that the job of the KCRHA is not to respond to individual neighborhood concerns about specific homeless people—nor would creating a special homeless-monitoring force for a neighborhood help anyway, in the absence of resources to help the people whose behavioral health conditions manifest as public nuisances. “For a lot of folks who have intense behavioral health needs, we don’t have any place for them to go. … It’s my job to not bullshit you on that,” Dones said.
What’s more, they added, sometimes the authority will outright reject community ideas that are bad. “The broad constituency here wants to solve this problem in a healthy and really compassionate way,” Dones said. “And that’s one of those places where if we’re telling people the honest truth about what can and can’t be done with what we have, it’s gonna go a lot further.”
Telling the truth about what works and what doesn’t seems like a simple thing. But it’s so contrary to the Seattle way of doing things that it’s almost shocking to hear an authority figure tell a traditional homeowners’ group that they can’t have what they want, and, moreover, that what they want won’t solve the problem they’ve identified.
Telling people what they want to hear is an ingrained political strategy, particularly when it comes to homelessness. When she first came into office, one-term Mayor Jenny Durkan promised she would build 1,000 new “tiny house” shelters in her first year in office. By the end of her term, only about 200 had opened. Her successor, mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, has similarly promised to add 2,000 new “emergency, supportive shelter” beds, using “existing local dollars” to fund this massive expansion. If this effort, modeled directly on the failed “Compassion Seattle” charter initiative, succeeds, it will almost certainly result in the kind of relatively low-cost “enhanced” shelter many people living in encampments reject, for reasons that outreach workers (and perhaps, now, come council members) understand well.
The question for Seattle isn’t, or shouldn’t be, “How will we add as many shelter beds as cheaply as we can so we can remove homeless people from public view?” It is, and should be: “How can we shelter and house unsheltered people in a way that prevents them from returning to homelessness while creating realistic expectations for housed residents who are frustrated with encampments in parks?” As the Ballard Commons example illustrates, it takes more than “X” number of shelter beds to get people to move inside. It takes time, effort, money, and a willingness to view unsheltered people as fully human.
1. Last week, PubliCola reported on the widespread use of “ecology blocks” to prevent people living in RVs from parking on the street in the Ballard industrial area. Although blocking public right-of-way without a permit is against the law, the city’s transportation department has chosen not to enforce the law, and at least two government agencies—the US Postal Service and Seattle City Light—have installed their own barricades to keep RV residents at bay.
Seattle City Light spokeswoman Julie Moore, following up on our questions from late November, said the electric utility decided to install a double line of fencing, which completely blocks the sidewalk on the north side of its Canal substation in Ballard, after two RVs caught fire next to the substation earlier this year.
City Light installed the fencing, at a cost of about $15,000 a year, “to mitigate risks to our critical infrastructure, specifically lines that provide communications to the System Operations Center and 26kV capacitor banks, which, if damaged, would create a power loss at the King County Wastewater Treatment Plan,” Moore said.
Moore said City Light did not install the eco-blocks that block off parking on the south side of the substation.
Ethan Bergerson, a spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation, said the department’s street use team “is working with Seattle City Light to consider possible solutions to create a pathway or detour for pedestrians while still addressing their safety concerns.”
“Without access to shelter—especially access to a toilet, a place to wash your hands, and clean water – this type of outbreak should come as no surprise, and is an exceedingly difficult problem to control.”
2. As voters in Seattle City Council District 3 decide the fate of City Councilmember Kshama Sawant in a recall election today, the city council is reportedly already mulling her potential replacement.
One name that has risen to the top of the list is that of Alex Hudson, the director of the Transportation Choices Coalition. Hudson, who first rose to prominence as the pro-transit, pro-density director of the First Hill Improvement Association and the co-founder of the website Seattlish, told PubliCola, “I like the job I have now,” adding that she “never wanted to be a politician” or subject her family to the kind of toxicity elected officials have to endure. (Case in point: The Kshama Sawant recall election).
Another rumored contender, Marjorie Restaurant owner and Capitol Hill EcoDistrict executive director Donna Moodie, said she had heard her name “mentioned as well,” but added, “I am currently so enthusiastic for the work I’m doing at Community Roots Housing [formerly Capitol Hill Housing that I can’t imagine anything distracting me from that.”
3. Shigella, a gastrointestinal disease that can be prevented by providing access to soap and running water, is on the rise again among Seattle’s homeless population. According to King County Public Health, there were 13 documented cases of shigella among people experiencing homelessness in King County in November.
According to the Seattle Human Services Department, as of late last week, the HOPE Team had relocated 51 people living at the Ballard Commons into tiny house villages or emergency shelter.
Additionally, Public Health spokeswoman Kate Cole said the agency has see more reports of diarrheal illness in general, “but we have no testing or other clinical details to indicate type of illness, so we don’t know if this could be Shigella, norovirus, some other pathogen, or something non-infectious.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic almost two years ago, advocates have asked the city to provide access to running water and soap so that people living unsheltered can prevent the spread not just of COVID but of other diseases more likely to be transmitted by unwashed hands, like shigella and cryptosporidiosis, which can result in severe illness and hospitalization. To date, the city still has not installed the street sinks the city council funded in 2020, citing a dizzying array of supposed logistical and public health problems with giving homeless people opportunities to wash their hands.
(Update: A Seattle Public Utilities spokesperson says two sinks have been installed, and that the utilities department “is evaluating all hygiene options, including street sinks and hygiene stations, to better understand challenges. To date, provider willingness to host a sink appears to be one of the greatest barriers.” As PubliCola reported earlier this year, providers have expressed frustration that the city is holding them solely responsible for meeting the requirements it has established for any sink to operate, including total ADA compliance and hooking the sinks up to the city’s water supply.)
“Pathogens that cause GI illnesses, including Shigella, are highly transmissible, particularly in settings with large numbers of people living unsheltered,” Cole said. “Without access to shelter—especially access to a toilet, a place to wash your hands, and clean water – this type of outbreak should come as no surprise, and is an exceedingly difficult problem to control.”
1. Eight Seattle police officers who registered to vote using the addresses of Seattle Police Department precincts instead of their home addresses—including Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan—will not face criminal charges. Instead, after an investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), two of the officers (including Solan) received one-day unpaid suspensions and three received oral reprimands; the remaining three officers retired or resigned before the investigation ended.
The South Seattle Emerald first reported that eight SPD officers had registered to vote using their precinct addresses in July 2020, after a search of county voting records found at least one officer registered at each of the department’s five precincts. Because registering to vote using an incorrect residential address is a felony in Washington—one punishable by a five-year prison sentence or a $10,000 fine—the OPA initially referred the case to SPD for a criminal investigation.
The department decided not to investigate; according to the OPA’s report on the case, an SPD captain justified the decision by noting that the officers were already under investigation by the King County Department of Elections, and by claiming (incorrectly) that all of the officers lived in Seattle.
While all acknowledged that they had used their precinct addresses when registering to vote, most argued that they did so to avoid making their home addresses a public record for safety reasons. In response, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg advised the officers to lobby the state legislature to pass tighter privacy protections instead of breaking state law.
In lieu of an investigation, the OPA began its own investigation of the officers’ alleged policy violations, ultimately ruling that all eight officers violated SPD’s professionalism policies, as well as a policy prohibiting officers from using their precinct addresses for personal business. OPA Director Andrew Myerberg didn’t say whether he believed the officers knowingly violated state law, though he noted that King County Elections’ investigation will eventually resolve the question. “Ignorance of the law is not a defense,” he wrote in his report. “This is especially the case for police officers who are entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing it.”
If the elections department does rule that the officers knowingly broke state law, county election officials told the OPA they are unlikely to press charges—the law targeting incorrect voter registration addresses is frequently broken and rarely enforced.
Only five of the officers agreed to interviews with OPA investigators. While all acknowledged that they had used their precinct addresses when registering to vote, most argued that they did so to avoid making their home addresses a public record for safety reasons. In response, Myerberg advised the officers to lobby the state legislature to pass tighter privacy protections instead of breaking state law.
2. The city will replace two rented shower trailers, which have been stationed at Seattle Center and King Street Station in Pioneer Square since last fall, with trailers it bought from a Pittsburgh-based company called Restroom2Go Restroom Trailers. According to a Seattle Public Utilities spokeswoman, the trailers cost the city just over $188,000.
As the COVID pandemic abates, the city has begun closing down and relocating facilities and services for people experiencing homelessness, including “de-intensified” mass shelters and hygiene facilities like the two shower trailers. For now, the spokeswoman said, people will still be able to shower at King Street Station, but the shower trailer at Seattle Center will have to move as summer programming returns to the former World’s Fair grounds. A temporary shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall has already started shutting down, with residents moving back into the Navigation Center (a congregate shelter in the International District).
Another DESC shelter whose residents moved to Exhibition Hall during the pandemic, the Queen Anne Shelter, remains closed.
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According to SPU, the city is still looking for a place to move the Seattle Center trailer “on the campus,” and is also working out what to do with the two trailers in the long term. “City staff are considering exploring the best options for the trailers, including making them mobile, keeping them stationary or a hybrid approach, to meet the needs of our clients and maximize utilization.”
Even with the two trailers remaining in service, there are very few options for people living unsheltered to take a shower citywide. Lack of access to hygiene is a major quality of life issue, and a barrier to accessing public facilities like transit and libraries, not to mention applying for a job. According to the city’s current hygiene map, there are just 14 places in the city that offer free showers, most of them concentrated near the downtown core; neighborhoods south of I-90, including all of West and Southeast Seattle, have just one shower location each.
3. Someone—perhaps the same brave long-lens photographers who add images of unsheltered people to Google Maps results for various Seattle parks—took the time recently to rename the Ballard Commons Park “Straussville” in Google Maps.
Dan Strauss is the city council member for District 6, which includes the Commons; unsheltered people have lived and congregated in the park, which is next to the Ballard branch library, for many years, but have become more visible during the pandemic as the city decreased encampment sweeps. As of Monday morning, the fake park name had been removed.
1. Last Wednesday, acting Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced a new partnership between his department and the Los Angeles-based Center for Policing Equity (CPE), which specializes in producing “analyses to identify and reduce the causes of racial disparities in policing.”
In a press release, Diaz said the CPE will spend the next several months studying SPD’s “functions, training, policies, accountability measures and impacts on communities of color”; the researchers will then “convert” their findings into “strategies to ensure [that] SPD eradicates public safety inequities moving forward.”
In her September executive order launching an assessment of SPD’s functions and possible areas for civilianization, Mayor Jenny Durkan also included the CPE as a source of “subject matter expertise” alongside the city’s own accountability partners, including the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the Community Policing Commission (CPC).
This is not the CPE’s first time in town. In 2015, after the CPC asked SPD to review its crowd control policies in the wake of that year’s Black Lives Matter protests, then-police chief Kathleen O’Toole included the CPE on a panel of experts tasked with reviewing the department’s crowd control tactics and presenting recommendations for improvement. The CPE did not release its 23-page report until 2017, and the panel never presented their recommendations publicly. The CPE’s recommendations were generally unremarkable: for instance, the analysts suggested that “SPD should further pursue explanations of the elevated severe use of force during demonstrations.”
Diaz’ announcement gave no indication that the new CPE study will be any more transformative than its last one, not least because he did not name any accountability mechanism attached to the analysts’ recommendations (some accountability mechanism may exist, but a CPE representative didn’t respond to a request for comment on that front).
Moreover, the scope of work that Diaz described suggests that the CPE’s study could easily overlap with the work of the city’s existing accountability bodies, including the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Police Accountability. Inspector General Lisa Judge, whose office is currently working on a sentinel review of SPD’s protest response, told PubliCola that the CPE analysts should “engage with the current accountability structure and assess whether they’re actually doing anything different and whether there is value added.” There could be room for the analysts to collaborate with her office, she added, so long as they respect “the ongoing work of accountability partners.”
2. As the city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan continue debating what will will replace the Navigation Team, which Durkan formally dismantled in September, encampments have continued to proliferate around the city. Although one could argue that encampments are merely a symptom of a longstanding crisis Seattle has failed to adequately address, the city’s decision to temporarily stop sweeping people aggressively from place to place during the pandemic has exacerbated the visibility of the crisis.
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Prior to COVID, the Navigation Team was conducting hundreds of encampment removals a year. Post-COVID, they dramatically scaled back this work, doing sweeps only at encampments that were the source of large numbers of complaints or that presented significant public safety issues, like the large encampment that was recently removed from a cracking, partially demolished pedestrian bridge downtown.
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.
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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.