By Erica C. Barnett
Dozens of RVs and other vehicles had mostly disappeared from the SoDo street where they’ve been parked for more than two years on Tuesday, after a last-minute push to get everybody out before city workers showed up at 9am to clear the area. By 9:30, as the heat rose into the 80s, the street was cordoned off with “Street Closed” sawhorse placards and a few eco-blocks—heavy concrete blocks businesses use to prevent people from parking on public streets—had already appeared.
A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, Jamie Housen, said that between July 8 and this morning, 20 people living in their vehicles at the site had accepted offers of shelter, which means a shelter bed was available and they said they were willing to go. The city does not ensure that people who get referrals to shelter actually get there, and although Seattle does pay for Lyft rides, that practice is problematic, making underpaid rideshare drivers responsible for people who may be in crisis.
Anti-sweeps advocates called on Harrell to postpone the removal until after this week’s anticipated heat wave (as I write this, it’s 93 degrees), but Housen said the “RV remediation,” along with an encampment removal near Woodland Park later this week, is actually in the best interest of the unsheltered people being displaced.
“Someone displaced today is an elderly person with congestive heart failure who needs more care than any available shelter can provide. That person should get the health care and shelter they need, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic sweep to get it.”—Alison Eisinger, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness
“This week, the City will complete two RV remediations and one encampment removal, with the aim of addressing the public health and safety concerns at those sites while helping those experiencing homelessness get indoors, into shelter, and out of the heat,” Housen said. “No additional encampment resolutions will be conducted during the elevated heat event, but shelter referrals to get people into cool and safe places will continue.”
But most of the people living along 3rd Avenue S. just moved elsewhere; according to a staffer for City Councilmember Tammy Morales, whose district (D2) includes SoDo, they included at least two people with major medical needs—one with congestive heart failure and one with terminal cancer—that can’t be accommodated in a traditional shelter.
In a statement, Morales called Tuesday’s sweep a sign of the “continued failure of our city response to addressing the root causes of homelessness” and noted that despite the efforts of service providers, “there were not enough shelter options to move people into today despite the extensive outreach that took place this month.”
According to an internal presentation by Harrell’s office earlier this year, there are, on average, between two and five shelter beds available each night across the city, a number that is similar to previous estimates from the Human Services Department and shelter and service providers.
Alison EIsinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said it was irresponsible to displace dozens of people in the middle of a pandemic and during a heat wave. “High temperatures make it worse for people on the ground, and make it harder for staff to bring water, cooling supplies, and health care to people they can no longer locate. That’s not just bad policy, that’s wasteful, cruel, and ineffective policy,” Eisinger said
Responding to the Harrell Administration’s comment that shutting down a longtime RV encampment would get people “out of the heat,” Eisinger added, “I just learned that someone displaced today is an elderly person with congestive heart failure who needs more care than any available shelter can provide. That person should get the health care and shelter they need, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic sweep to get it.”
In her statement, Morales said that despite repeated requests, Harrell’s office has not provided them with information about encampment removals in advance.
People who need to escape the heat, including people experiencing homelessness, can go to community centers, libraries, and malls during the day; for housed people, the city suggests “moving to where it’s cooler to sleep more comfortably” and taking a cooling shower.