Against CDC Guidance, Some Cities Sweep Homeless Encampments

By: - April 28, 2020 12:00 am

A homeless encampment in San Francisco. Some cities are continuing to conduct cleanups of homeless encampments, despite CDC guidelines. Ben Margot/The Associated Press

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Last month, in Austin, Texas, just as the pandemic was starting to wreak havoc, city officials came to clear the encampment where Britton Ellis was living with her friend and a dozen or so other homeless people. City workers, accompanied by the police, tore everything down: the shelters constructed out of bits and pieces of wood, tents. Within an hour, Ellis said, everything was gone.

Dejected, Ellis relocated to an underpass along U.S. Route 183, where she makes do in her 10-by-12 tent.  

“It’s not really habitable,” said Ellis, 56, who worked as a day laborer before the shutdown, and who said she has been homeless for 17 years. “But where else are you going to go?”

In March, at the start of the pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines instructing cities that, unless housing units are available, “do not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community,” which “increases the potential for disease spread.”

But across the country, from California to Washington to Minnesota to New York, cities are still conducting sweeps, city officials acknowledged, saying they must address health and safety problems.  

Such efforts are controversial. City officials say sweeps are necessary to combat public health hazards, such as human waste, discarded needles and garbage. Encampments have been hot spots for outbreaks of hepatitis A, typhus and tuberculosis.

Homeless advocates say even before the pandemic, the sweeps were disruptive, further traumatizing people already living on the edge. People caught up in the sweeps often lose their belongings, homeless advocates say. When they’re forced to disperse, they lose contact with outreach workers who provide them with access to food, medicine and mental health services.

But to conduct sweeps during a pandemic “is one of the stupidest, most cruel and counter to public health practices that anyone can imagine,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “It’s not only misguided, it’s dangerous.”

Last week, Seattle city workers cleared a downtown encampment of about a dozen people because it posed a safety hazard, according to the city’s Navigation Team, which handles tent removals and shelter referrals. Also last week, activists stopped a sweep of a tent city in Sacramento, California, according to Joe Smith, advocacy director of Loaves and Fishes, a local charity group that works with encampment residents.  

When asked about the aborted sweep, California Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Rocco told Stateline in an email, “Due to concerns over COVID-19 and to limit its potential spread among the homeless population, [the department] is temporarily suspending encampment cleanups unless there is an immediate safety concern, but will continue to work with local partners to move individuals into safer situations as available.”

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Teresa Wiltz

Teresa Wiltz covers welfare, housing and social services for Stateline. Previously, she worked for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.