1. Four city council members—Rob Johnson, Mike O’Brien, Debora Juarez, and Kshama Sawant—signed a letter Monday urging Mayor Ed Murray to delay for one week the city’s plans to clear the homeless encampment on state Department of Transportation -owned Airport Way South and S. Royal Brougham, known to residents as “the Field” or “the Field of Dreams.” Camp residents have proposed a three-part plan to clean up the encampment and make it safe for human habitation, but it’s unclear how many of their proposals are feasible, given current conditions at the camp.
The city initially sanctioned the encampment as a temporary holding place for people relocated from the Jungle, the three-mile-long encampment under and surrounding I-5 near Beacon Hill. The city cited unsafe and unsanitary conditions as its reasons for clearing the Jungle, and is now making the same claims about the Field. Last month, a camp resident was arrested for rape and sex trafficking, and drug dealers have reportedly also moved in; meanwhile, the field itself is muddy and rat-infested, and garbage is heaped up in piles.
“The conditions down there are really quite appalling,” council human services committee chair Sally Bagshaw said Monday morning. “People who are living there say it looks like the ground is moving, there are so many rats, and that rats are running over people’s feet. … I think as a city we have got to be able to stand up and say that when something is so rat infested and there is mud literally up to our ankles … this is not something we’re willing to say is okay.” Besides, Bagshaw added, “There are options now. It’s not like people are being swept and told ‘Go find another place to be.'”
Residents of the Field said they have asked for fire extinguishers, wood chips, trash pickup, and additional generators to keep the encampment clean, safe, and free from rats and garbage, but the city hasn’t delivered. Instead, encampment residents and supporters said, they’ve been offered the same shelter beds and long-term treatment slots that they were rejecting by moving to encampments in the first place. “When I see the Field, I am reminded of the two years Nickelsville spent at the Glass Yard” in Delridge, a resident of the Ballard Nickelsville encampment named Matt told the council. “When I see the Field, I am reminded of the times when Union Gospel Mission was sent in by the city to offer false choices of housing that wouldn’t work,” including shelters that don’t allow partners, pets or possessions, mats on the floor in facilities many encampment residents view as inadequate and unsafe, or beds that were only available to those who committed themselves to sobriety or agreed to submit to religious instruction.
The city has consistently said that it now offers real housing options to encampment residents. But in an interview before the council meeting yesterday afternoon, O’Brien told me that claim relies on sleight of hand. “We don’t have 50 good housing options for folks,” O’Brien said. “If you have one housing option, you can offer that one housing option to 50 people, but as soon as one person takes that housing option they’re going to stop offering it.” The rest, he said, will be forced to accept inadequate shelter or move on to the next encampment site.
This morning, the city plans to move in to the Field and remove any remaining tents, belongings, and people starting at 9am. Several groups opposed to encampment sweeps, who sat outside Murray’s office yesterday afternoon and eventually spoke briefly to his homelessness director, George Scarola, have vowed to show up to physically resist city staffers when they try to evict the remaining residents. O’Brien says that even if the protesters manage to stop this morning’s sweep, “My expectation is that the police will be persistent.”
“When they swept the Jungle, from the beginning, it was like, ‘This is chaos, this is unacceptable,'” O’Brien says. “The problem is it’s not clear what lessons we’ve learned as a city if we just keep doing this over and over again.”
2. The council’s discussion of the Field encampment was interrupted briefly yesterday morning when members of the organization Friends of Little Saigon burst into council chambers, waving signs with slogans like “Stop Ignoring Us” and chanting, “Talk with us! Not at us!”
The impromptu protest was a response to the way the city announced the location of the first Navigation Center, a low-barrier, 24-hour shelter for people, like the Field residents, who can’t or won’t sleep at regular overnight shelters. The Friends of Little Saigon and other organizations and businesses in the neighborhood sent a letter to the council and mayor in February asking the city to delay opening the center at the Pearl Warren Building at 12th Avenue and Weller St., arguing that they weren’t consulted on the location until a few days before the announcement, and that by then it was a fait accompli.
Quynh Pham, a representative of Friends of Little Saigon, told me the Navigation Center announcement was the final straw after the city failed to consult the neighborhood on a series of major events, including First Hill streetcar construction and the Womxn’s March, that negatively impacted neighborhood residents and businesses. “We were speechless” when the city’s Human Services Department told them about the decision,” Pham says. “We felt like, why even tell us without a plan to really address the impacts or understand where we’re coming from? They just came to us with the proposal at the last minute.”
Yesterday morning, council member Lisa Herbold blamed the lack of communication on the mayor’s office, which she said “needs to figure out a way to approach public process and engage with communities very differently.” Noting that the Navigation Center has not only been in the works since last year, but will now open months behind schedule, Herbold said “there has been no lack of opportunity to engage with that community.”
3. The mayor’s office plans to bypass the city council to get its $55 million homelessness levy on the August ballot by collecting signatures instead of sending it to the council for approval. Historically, the council tinkers with ballot measures that originate in the mayor’s office or in city departments, adding and subtracting funding for specific programs. In this case, the levy measure is likely to lean heavily on rapid rehousing—short-term vouchers to house homeless people in apartments that will revert to market rate after a few months—and eliminate some funding for agencies that have received city funding for decades, such as those that provide transitional housing. Groups that will likely lose out from a shift toward rapid rehousing include the Low-Income Housing Institute, which runs a number of transitional housing programs—and has heavily lobbied the council against proposed cuts to its programs. Expect an announcement on the levy from the mayor’s office on Wednesday morning.
4. In this afternoon’s transportation committee meeting, council members will get a briefing on the city’s progress on Vision Zero, the city’s plan to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. One thing that briefing won’t include is a report on traffic deaths and injuries in Seattle over the past two years; the Seattle Department of Transportation’s most recent report covers 2014, before most Vision Zero changes were implemented. I’ve requested a copy of the latest available information, but the lag, O’Brien notes, makes it difficult to draw conclusions about whether the city’s efforts are working; “it’ll be two years,” O’Brien notes, before recent pedestrian fatalities on NE 65th Street and in Wallingford show up in official city records.
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