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On the evening of March 15, Austin Rusnak returned from a trip to the food bank to find that the shelter he had set up in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood had been completely destroyed. His tent had been dismantled and his belongings thrown away.
It wasn’t the first time the 46-year-old had been caught up in one of the City of Seattle’s sweeps of homeless encampments. But it was the first time it had happened during a global pandemic.
There are now 5,984 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Washington state, where the first-known case in the United States was diagnosed in late January; 247 people there have died from the disease. The Centers for Disease Control has recommended that people across the country should stay at home if possible and practice “social distancing” when around others. However, for the more than 11,000 people who have no permanent housing in Seattle and surrounding King County, this task is exponentially more difficult: Many have to choose between shelters that are already near capacity, or live in potentially perilous but more isolated conditions outside.
On March 27, five of Seattle’s largest shelters and services went into lockdown for at least 14 days, after an individual at one facility tested positive for Covid-19 and had to be hospitalized. “There isn’t enough room for all of us in the shelters,” Rusnak told The Nation. “They push us all close together, and there are never enough beds. I feel safest in my tent isolated from everyone. I know I’ll get sick in there.”
But despite the lack of space in the city’s shelters, Seattle—led by Mayor Jenny Durkan—continued to sweep homeless encampments last month, even after saying it would put a halt to the practice.
During sweeps, city employees can destroy tents, throw away belongings the city doesn’t want or is unable to store, issue parking tickets or even impound vehicles that unhoused individuals use for shelter, and install hostile architecture that keeps people from coming back to sleep on benches in city parks. Advocates say that these policies effectively criminalize homelessness, depriving people of their basic needs and exposing them to the dangers of living without any shelter.
On February 29—the same day that the first Covid-19 death in King County was announced—Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency. According to independent reporter Erica C. Barnett, even after Inslee’s announcement, the Seattle mayor’s office reported last month that the city had done 15 sweeps between March 1 and March 17.
Direct service providers for Seattle’s homeless population told The Nation that the city’s Human Services Department (HSD)—which manages the city’s homelessness services—had communicated during the week of March 9 that it was canceling all planned sweeps, and would not conduct them unless encampments were categorized as “obstructions.” However, on March 11, the HSD’s so-called “navigation team”—which includes police officers, social workers, and other city employees—conducted a planned sweep of an encampment in a north Seattle natural area, contradicting those claims. More sweeps were reported on social media by houseless people and advocates on March 12 and 14. On March 19—the day when the World Health Organization reported that the United States had more than 10,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19—some residents of a Ballard encampment say they were visited by police, who threatened to displace them the following morning.
As the cost of Seattle housing has continued to rise, the number of unhoused people has increased nearly every year since 2012, and the city’s shelter capacity has not kept up with demand. At the same time, the city’s response to those living outside in autonomous and unauthorized shelters has become increasingly punitive.
The result is that Seattle’s unhoused community is now especially vulnerable to Covid-19. Those who lack permanent housing are being forced to choose between self-isolating in unsanctioned encampments and cars—or living in potentially overcrowded shelters. The spaces that would normally provide refuge have now become exponentially more dangerous.
The Nation met Rusnak in Ballard a few days after his shelter was destroyed in the sweep last month. His new shelter, in the same neighborhood, is big enough to fit him and his dog, Princess. He was forced to build it from spare tarp and poles.
“Thank God I had nothing important in there,” he said, of his previous tent. “I got smarter ever since they took everything from me two years ago.”
Rusnak has lived in Seattle since 1994. He has worked a variety of jobs, including at seafood processing companies, a car wash company, and a sausage factory, among others. Despite these gigs, he said that he has frequently been unable to afford the city’s high rents—a common issue in Seattle, where about one in five unhoused people are employed. Rusnak has attempted to access emergency shelters all over the city, but has often found they were at capacity.
In December 2018, he was staying in a tent shelter in the city. A few days before Christmas, he stepped away from his home to run errands—and returned to find everything he owned gone: his only forms of shelter, Christmas presents for his children, tools, clothing, and objects of deep personal importance.
“They took everything. My dog’s ashes, memories of my wife, and my tent,” he said. “I walked around that night with nowhere to go and everything I cared about gone. I wanted to kill myself.”
According to Zillow, the average monthly rent for an apartment in Seattle went from $1,893 in 2010 to $2,630 as of this January. That drastic increase is tied to the city’s tech boom: Amazon, which was founded in Bellevue, Washington, moved its headquarters to downtown Seattle in 2010. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, the company had grown to more than 50,000 employees in the Seattle area alone. Microsoft—headquartered in Redmond, Washington, a 20-minute drive from downtown Seattle—also has more than 50,000 employees in the area; Google and Facebook each have local offices with over 4,500 and 5,000 employees, respectively. By 2018, Seattle’s median income had soared to over $90,000 a year—a more-than-50 percent increase from 2010. A statewide ban on rent control, a dearth of publicly owned affordable housing, and restrictive single-family zoning have also all contributed to the massive increase in the cost of housing.
These changes have only served to escalate racial wealth disparities and encourage gentrification of Seattle’s black and brown neighborhoods, and the housing crisis has disproportionately impacted Seattleites who are queer, trans, black, Indigenous, and Latinx, as well as those who are disabled and neuro-atypical. A recent report found that nearly 40 percent of middle-income workers, such as hospital staff and teachers, are struggling to afford housing in the city.
Now thousands more workers are losing their jobs as a result of the pandemic. On March 26, KOMO News reported that there had been an 843 percent increase in unemployment claims across the state the previous week.
Seattle first declared a state of emergency for its homelessness crisis in 2015, setting aside an additional $5 million for services and shelters. This year, the HSD’s budget for shelters, transitional housing, and other expenditures was increased to over $80 million.
A January report from the corporate consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that the fastest way to solve King County’s homelessness problem would be to build 15,700 affordable homes for those facing immediate lack of housing; preventing even more working-class residents from dipping into potential homelessness would require up to 37,000 affordable homes. Last month, socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant cited that report when she unveiled a proposal for a new payroll tax on Amazon and other big businesses that could raise $300 million a year, to be used largely for building affordable housing.
However, the city has largely pursued a punitive approach. Public records indicate that Seattle and Washington state have spent millions of dollars on contracts for fencing alone, to prevent unhoused folks from camping under bridges and highway overpasses. The budget for the navigation team has also increased every year since 2017, ballooning to over $8 million for 2020. While the navigation team does conduct outreach to the unhoused community and issue referrals to shelter, its primary purpose is to sweep unsanctioned encampments and impound unhoused people’s vehicles. Thirteen of the team’s 38 members are drawn from the Seattle Police Department.
Before conducting a planned encampment sweep, the navigation team is mandated to give residents at least 72 hours notice and offer referrals to shelter. But if an encampment or vehicle is located in so-called “emphasis zones”—places where, the navigation team decides, an encampment has become a consistent problem—or categorized as a hazard, obstruction, or “litter,” the city is not required to give any notice, or do any outreach. There is no appeals process, and whether a person’s belongings will be stored or destroyed is up to the discretion of the navigation team.
According to city records obtained via public disclosure requests, the navigation team gave encampment residents 72 hours notice before only 81—or 6.8 percent—of the 1,192 sweeps conducted in 2019. That’s a substantial decrease from the 202 sweeps, or nearly 40 percent, that gave 72 hours notice in 2018. This change seems to indicate that the navigation team is interpreting the rules for sweeps differently now, in a way that allows them to displace homeless people faster and more frequently.
Despite consensus among unhoused people, advocates, direct service providers, and activists that sweeps are both counterproductive and harmful, the City has not only continued doing sweeps but has increased them substantially. The City has used two different databases for logging sweeps over the past few years, making the numbers hard to track. But the records show that the number of sweeps per year went from more than 500 in 2016 to nearly 1,200 in 2019.
Amid the worsening Covid-19 outbreak, many grew even more frustrated that Seattle was continuing to sweep unhoused people. Bevin McLeod, cofounder and board president of the health care advocacy group Alliance for a Healthy Washington, said that she noticed midday on March 14 that the navigation team had come to her neighborhood in north Seattle: They were there to sweep an elderly disabled couple living in their RV on the side of the road. McLeod said that the RV was “not in anybody’s way” yet was impounded by the city, leaving the couple with no real shelter to live in.
In response to health concerns and growing criticism from activists and some City Council members, the HSD released a statement on March 17 declaring that it would pause both planned sweeps and the majority of obstruction sweeps, except under certain “extreme circumstances.” But Seattle police have threatened a sweep at least once since then: On the night of March 19, Seattle North Precinct police officers approached a five-tent encampment located at the Ballard branch of the Seattle Public Library, which was already closed due to the pandemic. Ballard is a middle-to-upper-class neighborhood in Seattle, where a scheduled sweep has usually happened twice per month. The officers told the residents that they either had to vacate the area or be forcibly removed the following morning.
“To be honest, I was surprised they gave us till the next morning,” a resident named Paul told The Nation. “They used to just come during the mornings to sweep us, around 8 am, but not anymore. Now they do it at all times of the day. I got swept at 2 in the morning last time, and I didn’t know what to do. It was the middle of the night. They don’t play by the same rules anymore.”
Paul said that he and the other residents knew the shelters were overcrowded, so they stayed put. When the officers came back the next day, the residents were surprised to hear them say that they could no longer perform the sweep anyway—vowing instead to be back within the next couple of weeks when they were “allowed” to sweep again.
On March 22, the CDC released a statement confirming what many already knew: that sweeps increase “the potential for infectious disease spread.” In an e-mail to The Nation, a spokesperson for the Seattle Emergency Operations Center did not rule out potential sweep of encampments in an “extreme circumstance that presents a significant barrier to accessibility of city streets and sidewalks, and is an extraordinary public safety hazard.” The spokesperson said these people would be offered spots in the city’s shelter system—not individual housing, which the CDC recommends.
In non-pandemic times, shelters can save lives. This year, however, they have become dangerous, as shelter residents tend to live in close quarters, where they can easily spread or contract the coronavirus.
In order to reduce the number of people staying in each facility, Seattle is opening several new shelters and incrementally boosting funding for others. According to the King County Executive’s office, the county and the City of Seattle have opened 95 new shelter beds and spaced 709 existing shelter beds farther apart, in order to reduce the potential for the virus spread. The City and County have also opened over 1,000 new spaces for those who need to be quarantined or who are recovering from the virus. (The County also bought a motel in early March to use as a general quarantine facility for Covid-19 patients.) However, it is unclear if these measures will be enough to reduce transmission.
Anitra Freeman is a participant and the board president of SHARE, one of the largest network homeless shelters in King County. She said that they did receive a small boost in funding for this crisis, but that direct service agencies had already been operating without adequate funding or resources for years. “King County and Seattle declared a homeless state of emergency four years ago, and we’re all still a long ways short of having the resources to deal with the emergency,” she says. “Now we have an emergency on top of an emergency.”
She says that the low-barrier women’s shelter run by WHEEL—one of SHARE’s partner organizations—was above capacity even before the pandemic, housing 60 women when it was meant to house 40. The city has recently opened a new women’s shelter in a community center in the Central District so that WHEEL could “de-intensify” its number of residents.
“We’ve always needed twice as much shelter as we’ve got,” said Freeman. “Now we need even more in order to provide enough space for everyone to be separated.” She added that there were also still significant shortages of basic supplies such as hand sanitizer and toilet paper at some facilities.
Shelters across the city share these struggles: Even when there is sufficient space for distancing beds at night, it can be near-impossible to maintain distancing during the day. Mary Steele is the interim executive director of the nonprofit Compass Housing Alliance, which runs four shelters and a day center for the houseless community. She says that without more shelters opening up, they simply “don’t have enough space” to reach the six-foot social distancing requirement.
The crisis has been trying not only for the clients they serve but also for the people who work at these organizations. Jerred Clouse, executive director of ROOTS Young Adult Shelter, said the week of March 16 was probably the busiest of his entire career. They have had to pull back their volunteer operations to reduce the risk of spreading the virus and hire temporary employees, as some regular staff members could no longer work because of health concerns.
Colleen Echohawk, executive director of shelter operator Chief Seattle Club and founder of the Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness, said that their staff “are just feeling a lot of the pressure of trying to take care of our community, but then also keep themselves safe.” Indigenous people make up over 10 percent of King County’s houseless population, despite only making up 1 percent of the total population. Chief Seattle Club, which serves this community specifically, has had to start renting hotel rooms for Indigenous elders who are at greatest risk from Covid-19. “I don’t know how long we can do that for, but that’s what we’re doing right now,” says Echohawk.
Since the City destroyed his belongings on March 15, Austin Rusnak hasn’t left his newly built tent. He hopes that spending as little time as possible outside of this shelter will decrease the chance that the city will destroy it, too.
Rusnak is also one of three unhoused plaintiffs in a lawsuit that the ACLU has filed against the City of Seattle. The suit—which was filed before the pandemic, in October, and is currently in the discovery phase—argues that the city government has criminalized poverty and is punishing people for trying to live on City-owned land, despite a severe lack of shelter availability in Seattle. It also says that when the City sweeps an encampment, it disturbs a homeless person’s private affairs and invades their only source of privacy and refuge—and that the City cannot do so without obtaining a warrant, which encampment removals do not have.
“We’ve seen the City escalate the number of sweeps over the past year and threaten more people with arrests,” said ACLU attorney Breanne Schuster. “We believe that it’s not only unconstitutional, but it doesn’t do anything to help our homelessness crisis. In many ways, we are seeing the housing crisis worsen, with more and more people growing frustrated with the City’s approach.”
The pandemic is an unprecedented crisis, demanding a scale of action that has never been seen. Service providers, medical workers, city employees, and community organizers have been working overtime, often in conditions that could be hazardous to their health. In addition to the new shelters being opened, service providers say that King County and Seattle officials have invited them to join weekly conference calls, and have distributed personal protective equipment and sanitation equipment to some shelters. The city has also announced that it plans to add more portable toilets and hygiene trailers to specifically serve the homeless community.
Meanwhile, grassroots groups have come together to establish horizontal mutual aid projects to support people who are most vulnerable during the pandemic—and Councilmember Sawant is circulating a petition asking Governor Inslee to issue a moratorium on utility, mortgage, and rent payments, which she says is essential to preventing more people from tipping into homelessness.
The ACLU’s Schuster said she believes the key to improving conditions in the future will be holding the City accountable for the changes it is making right now.
“We’re seeing the City’s ability to build alternative spaces for our homeless in how they’re responding to our Covid-19 pandemic,” she said. “We’ve seen a new urgency to build spaces for people to go. Will that urgency exist after the pandemic? Our health crisis might go away, but our homelessness crisis will not.”