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Seattle officials divided over homeless encampment removals during pandemic

A small homeless encampment sits under a bride in Seattle. Officials in the Puget Sound region are bracing for the novel coronavirus to hit homeless shelters and camps.
Parker Miles Blohm
Seattle officials debated the city's approach to homeless encampments during the pandemic at a City Council meeting Wednesday.

Seattle officials continue to debate how to address homeless encampments during the pandemic. Seattle City Council members met Wednesday to consider legislation that would limit the city’s ability to remove encampments during COVID-19. 

After a lengthy discussion, the council decided to postpone action on the ordinance, and will take it up again in committee June 10. 

During the meeting, Sr. Deputy Mayor Mike Fong, Deputy Mayor for Operations Casey Sixkiller, Police Chief Carmen Best and Fire Chief Harold Scoggins raised concerns about the plan. Fong said there could be unintentional consequences if the measure were to pass.

“This legislation compromises the city’s ability to really effectively respond to public health and safety issues in our community,” Fong said.

The council also heard from advocates and homeless service providers, who expressed concern about moving people during the pandemic. Council members have echoed that concern, and cited guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that advise against removing encampments during the pandemic, unless individual housing units are available.

“We are failing if we think that removing people — vulnerable people — over and over again is going to solve this issue,” said Tammy Morales, a council member and lead sponsor of the ordinance.

The discussion around encampments also has drawn the attention of the community. More than 100 people signed up to comment on the bill at the virtual meeting Wednesday. An online petition against the bill has garnered thousands of signatures. Several health care workers, homeless service providers and community organizations have signed a letter of support.

Morales said the ordinance aims to formalize a statement the city made in March to largely pause encampment removals during the pandemic. Council members, and advocates, raised concerns over the city’s approach to encampments following recent sweeps in Ballard and the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods. 

The bill would amend the 2020 budget to restrict funds from being used to remove unsanctioned encampments during COVID-19, except in certain cases. Durkan will need to sign off on the measure in order for it to take effect. But the mayor’s office takes issue with the plan.

“A review of the legislation indicates it would increase the risks to both encampment residents and impacted communities,” Kamaria Hightower, a mayoral spokesperson, said in an email. “It would essentially ensure that unsafe and dangerous encampments that pose a public safety threat could not be removed — even at locations where there have been a significant increase in crimes that impact both the residents of encampment and the neighborhood.”

The bill would still allow for the removal of encampments when they pose an immediate hazard, reduce a sidewalk’s space to less than 4 feet, block curb ramps, bike lanes or a building’s entrance or exit, present a fire or safety hazard to infrastructure, or are located on a playground.

Removal also could take place in situations when there’s a health concern at an encampment, as long as health resources were provided, the resources did not resolve the health threat, and officials have determined the issue would be fixed by relocating residents.

Rebekah Way is an on-call news host at KNKX. She began her career in public radio as a news intern at KNKX, where she's also worked as an interim producer and reporter. Rebekah holds a life-long passion for music and also works as a professional musician and educator in the Seattle area.