Worker Benefits Expanded, Sweeps Suspended For Now, Navigation Team’s Future In Doubt

Ballard Business District, March 17, 2020

1. Governor Jay Inslee did not announce a statewide order to shelter in place on Wednesday afternoon, nor did he the bait when a reporter asked him whether he planned on doing so later this week. Instead, at a press conference in Olympia that was broadcast statewide, with reporters participating by teleconference, Inslee said he was issuing several new orders to ease the financial burdens the COVID-19 outbreak has placed on renters, small business owners, and workers statewide.

“My dad used to tell me, when you’re going through hell, keep going,” Inslee said, before announcing his latest statewide COVID financial relief package, which includes: 

• A statewide moratorium on evictions for residential tenants who are unable to pay their rent. Unlike a similar temporary eviction ban in Seattle, the statewide moratorium leaves some leeway for landlords to evict tenants for other reasons. “We just can’t have a big spike in homelessness … with this epidemic raging,” Inslee said. Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said that the order left room for landlords to evict tenants who were engaged in criminal activity or creating environmental hazards, for example.

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• A waiver of the usual one-week waiting period before people can receive unemployment benefits, retroactive to March 8, when Inslee expanded eligibility for unemployment to part-time workers. Inslee said today that he is waiting for the White House and Congress to declare a federal disaster in Washington State, making more employees, as well as some independent contractors, eligible for unemployment.

Employment Security Department commissioner Suzi LeVine said unemployment claims were up 150% last week, and claims for shared work arrangements (where people go to part time but also get unemployment) have spiked 500%. “There has been a tsunami of demand,” LeVine said.

• Small grants to small businesses that have been impacted by the epidemic, plus tax relief for businesses that are unable to pay their taxes on time, retroactive to February 29. This will include interest waivers and the suspension of tax liens and forced collections by seizing bank accounts.

• The extension of Emergency Family Assistance (cash assistance) eligibility to families without children.

“Because of our living situation, we’re probably a little bit less susceptible [to COVID-19] than a lot of the general public.” — Steve, who lived in a trailer that was towed away by the Navigation Team last week

2. Yesterday, after declining to respond to questions from reporters about whether the Navigation Team planned to continue removing encampments and disposing of homeless people’s belongings during the pandemic, the city’s Human Services Department put up a blog post announcing the suspension of most sweeps, except in an “extreme circumstance that presents a significant barrier to accessibility of city streets and sidewalks, and is an extraordinary public safety hazard.”

HSD spokesman Will Lemke said examples of an extreme circumstance would include any encampment that is “blocking the entire sidewalk, prohibits access to a facility, or is a public safety danger to occupants and/or greater community.”

A spokeswoman for the mayor says that both the Navigation Team and other city staffers authorized and trained to remove encampments on their own, such as community police officers and some parks employees, will abide by the moratorium. The blog post included a detailed itemization of the number of hygiene kits the city has distributed, the number of sites the team has visited, and the number of flyers about COVID they have handed out. But when it came to the number of encampments that have been removed since the beginning of March, when several people in the Seattle area had already died from the virus, the blog post said simply that they were “limited.”

Asked for a more specific number, the mayor’s office responded that the city removed just 15 encampments that were deemed “obstructions,” total, between March 1 and March 17.

3. I found out about one of those 15 removals on March 11, when Bailey Boyd, a North Seattle resident, took photos of its what was left after the Navigation Team towed away a trailer that was parked on the street near her home and posted them on Twitter. Boyd said and her roommate watched as the team tossed all of the items inside the trailer onto the street, where many of them remained until the couple who had been living there moved to a different location.

Source: Alliance for a HealthY Washington

“I went and got coffee in the morning, and when I came back, there was a squad car and another car there and the Navigation Team was going through all their stuff and throwing it on the ground,” Boyd said. “Then they brought a tow truck in and towed the trailer, and they just left all of their stuff on the side of the road.”

One of the two people who had been living in the trailer, whose first name is Steve, said the Navigation Team told him they could call a shelter for him and his girlfriend, who is disabled and uses a cane, and see if they had space. Steve says he told them not to bother. “I’m not going to a shelter. I’m with my girlfriend and I’m not going to split up from her,” he said. He also wants to avoid close contact with potentially infected people—something he doesn’t have to deal with living in a trailer. “Because of our living situation, we’re probably a little bit less susceptible than a lot of the general public,” he said.

Another issue, for Steve and his girlfriend, is that they don’t want to lose all their personal items—something Steve said has happened to him repeatedly after the Navigation Team has made him move. According to the city, the Navigation Team places all personal items removed from encampments in storage for a minimum of 70 days. However, according to the “site journals” posted on the city’s encampment abatement page, which has not been updated since the end of January, the last time the Navigation Team stored any property at all was last October.

4. This year’s city budget will need to be cut dramatically to deal with the economic impact of the COVID epidemic. Last week, the head of the city budget office, Ben Noble, estimated that the budget could take a $100 million hit. One place council members may look for savings is the Navigation Team, which has been expanded every year since Mayor Jenny Durkan took office in 2017. The team, at 38 members, now costs the city $8.4 million a year.

District 2 council member Tammy Morales, who vowed during her campaign to “stop the sweeps,” told me this week that the council had already started looking at the team’s budget before the current crisis hit. “Even before this emergency, our office was working to stop the sweeps,” Morales said. Expect the council to take a critical lens to the program once the dust settles and it’s clear how much the city has to cut.

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