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caption: Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. Attorney, announces her candidacy for Mayor of Seattle
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Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. Attorney, announces her candidacy for Mayor of Seattle
Credit: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Mayor Durkan on clearing homeless encampments during the pandemic

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan joins us for her weekly check-in.

This is an edited and abbreviated transcript of Bill Radke's conversation with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan on Thursday, May 21, 2020.

Why is the city clearing out this [homeless encampment] on South Weller today and one yesterday under I-5 in the Chinatown/International District?

We have since the beginning of this pandemic, really focused our resources on how to support people experiencing homelessness and protect them from the impacts of the pandemic. And collaborating with King County, [we] have been able to stand up a range of resources from isolation and quarantine facilities, should someone test positive, to testing in our permanent supportive housing shelters and unsheltered populations, the hygiene facilities. And we have stated and we'll continue to make that our true emphasis.

But if there are encampments that we do significant outreach to, and attempt to manage the public health and safety conditions around those, and cannot do so, then we do significant outreach to the individuals, try to bring them inside, and clean the encampment area. We've done that in very limited circumstances. I think to date, there's only been two, maybe three encampments, where we've had to go to that extent.

And Weller Street and King Street had some particular public safety and health threats that we were not able to mitigate or manage. It had significant impacts on the community around them, including impacts on seniors living in the area of culturally appropriate markets, and the like. And so we've done outreach and have offered services and shelter to each of those individuals. A number of people have accepted that and come inside, but as is the case, and their right, many people declined.

The sponsor of that city council bill I mentioned that you oppose, she says that her bill would have allowed this week's sweeps because those camps were blocking sidewalks or building entrances. But as for other sweeps, like the one that happened recently in Ballard, this bill cites the Centers for Disease Control, which recommends that cities do not clear out homeless encampments during the pandemic because it can increase the risk of infectious disease spread. Is the CDC wrong about that?

CDC has a whole range of recommendations, including how to manage congregate settings, outdoor encampments. And all the work we've been doing today has actually complied with the patchwork of CDC guidelines.

I would say that the legislation as written, actually, during a global pandemic, precludes the city from considering whether the spread of either Covid or Hepatitis A presents a risk to the people in the encampment, or the people in the community. And actually excludes that as one of the factors the city can use in determining whether an encampment is safe for the people living there, or the community. Also excludes public safety considerations.

These encampments, unfortunately, some of them [unintelligible] the site of shootings, human trafficking and other violent crimes. And so we we have to be able to take those in to consideration, even during a pandemic, to make sure that we have people in the encampment in safe and sanitary conditions as possible, as well as the impact on the community.

Well, the CDC does say that people need to be offered individual housing like a hotel room, not just a congregate shelter, and that's of course to limit the spread of COVID-19. So has the city provided hotel rooms to people at the encampments that it's removed?

It actually does not say that, Bill. There is a range of CDC guidance, including congregate settings. They do not preclude congregate settings as one of the ways that you can house or shelter people during the pandemic or in other circumstances. There's a second set of guidelines dealing with those.

There's also CDC guidelines that require the city and the county and the state to determine whether people are able to safely social distance, whether basic hygiene is being able to be followed, and those are also in the guidelines. So it's not as simplistic as some of the people want to say.

We are very much working very closely with public health officials, following CDC guidelines, and trying to do all we can to support people in this really difficult time for everyone, but particularly for our vulnerable communities.

Zach in SoDo: I had a question about the Hepatitis A outbreak in Ballard and that conjunction with Covid. Unfortunately, the Ballard location was one of the few sites of a hygiene station. So not only did we lose access to treating those folks at that site, now we're unable to access the hygiene sites on an ongoing basis. So moving forward, how do we prevent the hygiene sites from being segregated from the campers?

The hygiene sites, all the ones we have deployed through the city, are mobile sites, and we've tried to deploy them with a with a view towards where we know people experiencing homelessness are living and where the access to facilities has been greatly reduced because of the reduction in open public buildings and open commercial buildings.

In the city, there's a whole system of restrooms, rest areas, facilities, that in a typical day may be available to people who are experiencing homelessness. But as those businesses shut down as we shut down community centers, we had to be cognizant of where those were located, and the city has been trying to create with King County a range of hygiene services and bathroom facilities. It is nowhere near perfect and no one says that it is. For example, our parks' facilities, sometimes they're out of order, as they would be in any other time. And we had park staff working really hard to not just man the centers we've created in our community centers, but be out in our parks during the pandemic, and being the maintenance people for each of those bathrooms and facilities.

So we recognize the need for these hygiene facilities. We're trying to address it together with our partners at King County and we have asked since the beginning of this pandemic for more assistance from FEMA and the state government to address this very real conditions in the city of Seattle and King County.

Zyra in First Hill: There's several videos circulating, showing that the cops that are involved in these sweeps, they're not even wearing masks. And also, adding to that, the videos clearly show that it's just cops, there's no social workers. Are these cops who are not wearing masks, talking to folks and giving them options? I know that the city spends about 8 million each year on sweeps, and has yet to show evidence of reducing homelessness, or transitioning these community members into more stable homes. So why not allocate that money that's being spent without any proof that it's working into like, actual hygiene measures during, you know, these these times, like hand washing stations like that.

I have not seen the video that you're talking about. But I think some really important things that you said that it's important for people to understand is first, the city has not spent $8 to $10 million in relocating encampments. That number is often publicized, but it's not accurate. And probably most important is the teams that go out there, their first role is to do outreach and engagement and to try to bring people inside to safe places.

Last year, we were able to house more people experiencing homelessness than ever in the history of Seattle. And we do that not just through bringing people inside to our shelter system, but by creating an enhanced shelter system, where we've now moved, that most of our shelters are 24/7, they have supportive services. And it's shown that those are five times more effective, at least in getting people into long-term housing. So we have expended more resources and trying to get people long term housing than ever before. And it's working. It doesn't mean that it's worked well enough. Today was the first meeting of the regional homeless authority so that we can start dealing with this on a regional basis.

The second thing I want to say is that our navigation team that has been engaged at Weller Street and Ballard Commons, has been working for almost 30 days actually trying to reach out to every person that's in those encampments, to both give them hygiene information and hygiene packs, but also try to bring them inside to safer places.

We have gotten a lot of questions from the communities about these encampments, and it's often depicted as communities against homeless. And it's not that at all. In the International Chinatown area, we have one of the most vulnerable communities in Seattle, there are many senior citizens. Because of the stigmatization at the beginning of this pandemic, some of the restaurants and businesses in Chinatown were the first to suffer a slowdown in their business. There's very few culturally appropriate markets left. Those markets have been significantly impacted by the existence of these encampments, where there's been not only unsafe and unsanitary conditions, but an increase in criminal activity. We've heard from the community that they want to support those people, the city does too, we've offered them places to be -- it's heartbreaking for all of us. But at some point, if people are not willing to come inside, we also have to look at the impacts on the community as well.

I have not seen the masks. I know that there are protocols where when Seattle Police Department is in close contact with people, they're usually masked up. I've seen that. And the social workers are part of the navigation team. They are working very hard to try to be compassionate and supportive, to get information and hygiene to the people experiencing homelessness, and to bring them places that are safer. And we have had many more people take those services in the last 30 days, both at Ballard and at Weller Street and King Street than we'd have previously.

Seattle schools are offering online summer school for all students starting in July. Is that all grades, K-12, eligible for summer schools?

As you know, Seattle Public Schools are separate. I believe that they're determining, I believe it's all grades.

One of the things I've really been focused on is how we as a city can help make sure that there's true equity. While our tech reports have indicated that 98% of students at Seattle Public Schools have access to the internet, we know that there are severe equity issues as to which families and which students don't have that access. And so we really want to focus our efforts on helping the Seattle Public Schools bridge those equity gaps, make more not just computer equipment, but access to the online environment and support for the families and students in that online environment.

You know, I'm lucky my kids are older now. But I've got a lot of friends who are trying to do their work from home while they're trying to homeschool their kids. And we really need to make sure that we've got the support needed for families as this education goes online.

Seattle schools is separate from your office. But do you have nothing to do with ensuring that students have access to a laptop, internet? Can you assure us that everyone's going to get all that?

That is not a role the city of Seattle, but it's been one of the big focuses in trying to to help them. As we entered the pandemic, we knew that some of those inequities and access to internet would be important. It's one reason why our libraries have procured for example, a lot more hotspots that we could get out to community. And we're looking now to see where in the community the access to the internet is the most lacking and how we can partner with Seattle Public Schools to increase that. And not just on the short term. This is something we need to do for the long term. If we want to have true equity the internet is the new highway, and we've got to make sure that families have access to that.

But it's just not access to the internet, Bill. I mean, look, there are parents and grandparents, some people are unnecessary workers who their kids are home, they don't have the support they need for childcare and the like. We've got to find a way that those lesson plans actually reach the kids that need the schooling. And that's the conversations I've been having with Denise Juneau and others, to say, look, if we're really going to have an online kind of school, then we've got to change how we teach and how we support families as well.

The last time you and I spoke, you said that the pandemic has laid bare the inequities in our healthcare system. You said our communities of color have suffered disproportionately both health impacts and the economic impacts and we need to fix that. So I promised I would ask you more about that when we had time. How do you want to fix that?

We want to make sure as we're moving forward, we have to fix it in a number of ways. So it's building blocks. Number one, we have to make sure that our education system becomes more equitable. And that the opportunity gap gets narrowed instead of widened.

The people of Seattle passed a levy that gave us the opportunity to augment what's happening in Seattle Public Schools, so we could close the opportunity gap, provide more preschool and provide free college. We have to now take that in the era of Covid and make sure how do we use those funds to really support those same students through this.

We also have to make sure that workers are supported and really have a track to new and better jobs. So if you look at the new unemployment numbers, I think it just shows again, who's bearing the burden of the pandemic and the unemployment numbers in southeast Seattle far outstrip those in the rest of the city. It's not pretty anywhere, but it shows us that those jobs that are lower income, that's where we're having communities of color have access, but we've got to find roads to the good family wage jobs, whether it's in labor, or whether it's in tech companies.

And so coming out of this, I think we've got to have not just in Seattle, but in King County, in Washington State, an actionable plan that makes sure that the economy moving forward is more welcome to everybody, and that people truly do have the ability to weather storms like this.

Can you cite one way you would make that economy more equitable?

For example, I think we've got to continue with the free college, but I want to make sure that we then pair that college with internships and jobs that are going to pay family wage jobs over the long term, so that the students in there can have paid internships while they're in college, and that when they come out if they want to be at one of the tech companies, there's a pathway for that. If they believe that they want to be in one of the great high paying jobs in labor, we can do that. But that the default is not just two more years, then get a minimum wage job -- that it really is a pathway to moving up the economic ladder.

I look forward to continuing our conversation a week from now, Mayor, thank you.

And for all the people out there, I know this has been very, very hard. And we're all looking forward to a new day and a better day. I will say that we're working very closely with Governor Inslee to see how we can reopen Seattle, both community and businesses. We hope to have more to say to that after Memorial Day weekend. And I hope that people stay happy and healthy over the weekend.