Andrew Reding, Whatcom Democrats (cross-posted with author’s permission — view original post here)
The Bellingham Herald reports that Mayor Seth Fleetwood has ordered another clearance of a homeless encampment this Friday, this time in a Civic Field parking lot.
We ask that the policy of clearances be reconsidered in light of guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that specifically recommend against “clearing encampments.”
CDC guidelines state that “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are,” and “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
These guidelines (reproduced in full below) are crafted to reduce risk to unhoused persons, municipal employees, and the general public. A well-known problem in a pandemic is that congregate living, whether in long-term care homes, prisons, or homeless shelters, greatly accelerates the spread of COVID-19. This risk will only get worse as more highly contagious strains of the virus reach our area. With proper safeguards specified by the CDC, camping can play a role in reducing risk.
The argument that transgressions are committed by some individuals in encampments does not justify disregarding CDC guidelines. A cardinal rule of justice is that one does not punish an entire group of persons for the actions of some individuals. The normal procedure is to hold individuals accountable, rather than assign collective guilt, which is unfortunately easy to do with a highly stigmatized group.
For the health of the entire community, we ask the mayor to follow CDC guidelines on encampments. We also urge city councilmembers to pass a resolution calling on him to do so.
Relying on an ordinance against camping in public parks seems a bit disingenuous when it’s a parking lot involved. One way or another, the city should designate a publicly-owned location to camp that conforms with CDC guidelines and provide toilets, trash disposal, and water. The Border Patrol should be prohibited from any involvement, as should militarized police in camouflage and armored vehicles. We need longer-term solutions like a substantial expansion of permanently affordable housing and housing vouchers that will reduce homelessness. But in the meantime, chasing homeless persons from encampment to encampment is whack-a-mole irrationality that frays the community and spreads risk of COVID transmission.
Here are the relevant CDC guidelines:
Considerations for encampments
- If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.
- Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.
- Encourage those staying in encampments to set up their tents/sleeping quarters with at least 12 feet x 12 feet of space per individual.
- If an encampment is not able to provide sufficient space for each person, allow people to remain where they are but help decompress the encampment by linking those at increased risk for severe illness to individual rooms or safe shelter.
- Work together with community coalition members to improve sanitation in encampments.
- Ensure nearby restroom facilities have functional water taps, are stocked with hand hygiene materials (soap, drying materials) and bath tissue, and remain open to people experiencing homelessness 24 hours per day.
- If toilets or handwashing facilities are not available nearby, assist with providing access to portable latrines with handwashing facilities for encampments of more than 10 people. These facilities should be equipped with hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol).