Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood has long been home to a large concentration of homeless services. It has two of the city’s biggest shelters, several public feeding programs, and day centers that offer showers, restrooms, and gathering spaces for people with nowhere else to be.
Lately, though, Pioneer Square has become another kind of gathering place: one where tents and makeshift shelters are crowded inches apart and people congregate in clusters on the sidewalk, in defiance of Washington state’s social distancing orders during the coronavirus pandemic. Because most public restrooms are now closed, and the city has provided only a handful of portable toilets to make up for the loss, it has become necessary to watch one’s step. Last week, the head of a social services agency said she was walking to her car when she stepped in a pile of human waste that was sliding down the rainy street.
In Seattle, as in other cities up and down the West Coast, officials are cutting down on encampment sweeps, a controversial practice in which city employees — often police officers or sanitation workers — remove a homeless camp and dispose of tents and other property. The change is born out of necessity: Many shelters are no longer accepting new clients during the pandemic, and cities have been slow to offer hotel rooms or other housing to the people currently living on their streets. People simply have nowhere else to go ― which means cities are finally, at least temporarily, slowing the practice of removing them and their belongings from public spaces.
Advocates for the homeless say Seattle’s partial moratorium on encampment removals is, at best, an overdue first step. The question is whether the city is doing enough to keep those living in the encampments safe ― and whether the moratorium will stick once the COVID-19 crisis ends.
“It shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to understand how extremely damaging it is to uproot people, discard their personal possessions and survival gear, and not give them a solution to their homelessness,” said Alison Eisinger, head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and a vocal opponent of encampment sweeps.
Back in March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted new guidelines advising cities to stop removing encampments “unless individual housing units are available” and to ensure that encampments have access to 24-hour restrooms or portable toilets with sinks. Most cities on the West Coast have only partly followed these guidelines. Seattle and two large California cities ― Oakland and San Jose ― have all formally adopted partial moratoriums on encampment sweeps, while Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, have adopted less specific or informal policies that critics say allow too much leeway for sweeps to continue.
“At the beginning of this crisis, we realized very quickly that sweeps were going to be exactly contrary to public health,” said Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which pushed the CDC to issue its guidance. “The ability to shelter in place as much as possible in your own self-shelter environment, where you can at least have a tent wall between you and your neighbor, is better than a facility where it’s just an open area and the air is circulating and you’re all using the same sinks and toilets.”
Homelessness is hard on a person’s body, making people more susceptible to illness, like COVID-19, and more likely to develop chronic conditions at a younger age. The vulnerability of homeless people to disease outbreaks can, in turn, lead to broader public health implications.
“The message we’ve been trying to send is, it’s not just about people experiencing homelessness in your community,” Tars said. “This is about your entire community, because if you don’t want a hospital bed to be taken up when your grandmother, your brother or your sister needs that bed, you need to take steps now to make sure that bed is empty.”
For years, homeless advocates have pushed cities to invest in low-income housing, enhanced shelters that allow people to store belongings and stay with their partners and pets, and hygiene and health care services for people living on the streets. Had Seattle taken these actions in the past, local activists say, they would be better prepared to contain acute health crises, including COVID-19 and an ongoing hepatitis A outbreak, now.
“All the stuff we’re doing to respond to the crisis right now is really stuff we should have been doing all along,” said Sara Rankin, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law and director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project.
Sweeps During A Pandemic
Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles and the Tenderloin in San Francisco were already home to large tent cities before the coronavirus reached the U.S. San Francisco Mayor London Breed has hesitated to call a moratorium on sweeps, which the city refers to as “encampment resolutions,” but street-level advocates say the pace has slowed.
Before the epidemic, the city was “obsessed with tents,” said Kelley Cutler, an organizer with the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. In 2018, Breed announced that the city had achieved a “34% reduction in tents” since she took office earlier that year. Now, Cutler said, the city has stopped removing tents, but has not announced a moratorium, as Seattle did. “They won’t say they’re stopping sweeps, because they don’t want to admit they’re doing sweeps,” Cutler said.
About 1,000 people were on San Francisco’s shelter waitlist before the pandemic, and the crisis has limited shelter and housing options even further. Since the city stopped allowing new people into shelters in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus among the sheltered homeless population, Cutler said, her organization has handed out about 800 tents to people who have no choice but to “shelter” in place.
Cutler’s group is demanding that the city pay for thousands of hotel rooms so that unsheltered people can truly engage in social distancing, rather than sleeping in large shelters or on the streets. Lending new urgency to advocates’ demands were the 70 COVID-19 cases reported last week at San Francisco’s largest homeless shelter, where Cutler said people are still sleeping just 3 feet apart. (By Monday, the count was 81 residents and 10 staff members confirmed to have the coronavirus.)
But Breed initially resisted calls for San Francisco to pay for people to stay in hotels. Last week, she finally agreed to move some of the oldest and most vulnerable homeless people from large, crowded shelters into hotels, but the need, advocates say, far outpaces the number of rooms the city is providing.
For now, many people in San Francisco are living in tents. In a nod to social distancing guidelines for public places like grocery stores, the city is asking people to place their tents 6 feet apart. It’s an imperfect solution and not one that people can or do always follow.
Street campers are mostly complying with the new rules, “but survival on the street is so difficult,” said Hilary Ronen, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who has introduced legislation that would provide 8,000 hotel rooms for people living in shelters or on the streets during the crisis. “There’s separate rules and laws that develop, and I’m not sure that social distancing is among the top survival strategies of people who are sleeping on the streets.”
The city of Portland has issued similar guidelines encouraging people to space out their tents by 6 feet. Seattle has not.
In Los Angeles, where Mayor Eric Garcetti has promised 15,000 hotel rooms and opened up some 360 hand-washing stations, there is no formal policy to halt sweeps but they seem to have slowed, according to advocates.
The city’s sanitation department, which is ordinarily in charge of “cleanups,” is now focusing on removing actual trash, rather than throwing away people’s tents and possessions, said Sachin Medhekar, an organizer with the SELAH Neighborhood Homelessness Coalition (the name is an acronym for neighborhoods it covers). But, he said, LA isn’t providing dumpsters or routine trash pickup service to these encampments and sanitation workers still decide what items to throw away. “Documents get thrown away, medication gets thrown away. ... I’ve seen tents get thrown away,” Medhekar said.
There are about 59,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County and 36,000 in the city proper. Shower of Hope founder Mel Tillekeratne, whose nonprofit provides mobile showers at locations around Los Angeles, said even though the city’s approach to the COVID-19 crisis among its homeless population is better than many others, decades of neglect have left thousands without help.
“When you go to the big encampments — Skid Row, MacArthur Park — it’s heartbreaking,” Tillekeratne said. “A lot of people could go and relax at the library or Starbucks, but now, with none of those facilities available, they can’t socially distance. They don’t have one foot of distance from each other.”
What Happens Next
After the pandemic has passed, the best outcome for people experiencing homelessness is that cities that have brought homeless people inside figure out ways to keep them there, according to advocates like Tars and Cutler. Although Cutler said she’s worried there will be a wave of sweeps after California’s shelter-in-place order is lifted, she added, “I don’t think it’s ever going back to normal. There’s been a huge increase in the number of tents, and so they’re not going to be able to play their normal game of the sidewalk shuffle.”
Ronen, the San Francisco supervisor, said she thinks this is why Mayor Breed has been so reluctant to follow the board of supervisors’ lead and move more homeless people into hotels.
“I think what we’re understanding as a society, for the first time in a really long time, is that our well-being is interlinked with the entire community’s well-being,” Ronen said. “I think that if we get people inside now, that putting them back on the street will take on a whole new meaning, and perhaps the reason we’re receiving so much resistance is that there’s worry about creating expectations — that if we get people inside and living on their own, the city will continue to subsidize that into the future. But we hope for that to be the case.”
Back in Seattle, city council members have fought the mayor’s office for years over sweeps and the role of a specialized team focused on homeless encampments. A new council member, Tammy Morales, is hoping to adopt rules that will permanently limit the team’s ability to remove encampments to a shortlist of specific circumstances, such as immediate risk to a person’s safety, and direct the team to spend its time doing outreach rather than enforcement.
“The council is really frustrated with having this conversation over and over again and not getting the results that are claimed,” Morales said.
Eisinger, from the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, hopes that cities will go further and end encampment sweeps for good.
“I have to believe that one day not too far away, we will look back on sweeps as a practice that was just as misguided as stop-and-frisk and other practices that turned out to be not only deeply inequitable and rooted in racism or hatred of poor people, but also completely counterproductive,” she said.
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