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Mayor Durkan again at odds with Seattle council over homeless camps

A homeless encampment in Ballard. (Photo: Rob Harwood)

Mayor Jenny Durkan is again clashing with Seattle City Council over homeless encampment cleanups, with her office drafting a letter denouncing recently proposed legislation that would make it so money could not be used to remove camps unless there is a compelling public health reason.

Council proposes limiting removal of homeless camps during COVID-19

The proposal was introduced by Councilmember Tammy Morales and co-sponsored by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Teresa Mosqueda. If implemented, it would allow encampments to stay in place provided they don’t pose an “active health threat,” a “fire or safety hazard,” or an “immediate hazard” in areas like sidewalks, building entryways, or children’s play areas.

This comes weeks after a Ballard homeless camp at the center of a hepatitis outbreak was removed by city officials. The city also recently announced that it will soon be clearing two additional camps in the International District and Little Saigon neighborhoods, respectively.

Morales, Sawant, and Mosqueda cite concerns shared by the CDC that camp cleanups could disperse the city’s homeless into the community and increase the transmission of COVID-19.

Deputy Mayor Mike Fong countered that claim Tuesday, labeling the measure “extremely problematic,” while saying that it would “significantly limit the Navigation Team’s ongoing efforts to assist unsheltered individuals with referrals to housing and services.”

Councilmembers grilled Navigation Team representatives in February over data that indicated outreach workers weren’t offering shelter in roughly 96% of encampment removals. That came alongside the revelation that when offers of shelter were being made, they were only accepted around 24% of the time.

Seattle removes unsanctioned encampment at Ballard Commons

“At the bare minimum, we should be providing individual shelter space like the CDC advises, and realistically should be making every effort to house every single person living unhoused, but we’re not,” Councilmember Morales reiterated in a recent letter to constituents.

Fong points to a handful of other concerns in his letter to councilmembers, urging them to reject the proposed legislation. Those concerns include limitations on the ability of Seattle police officers to remove camps from private property, or to address “unauthorized encampments associated with criminal activity.”

“The proposed legislation would effectively authorize camping across the city,” he warned.

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