Antwan Watkins already had his shirt off at 9 a.m. Tuesday as temperatures crept above 70 degrees. He hoisted a rolled-up rug onto his shoulders and carried it away from the tarp structure in Sodo he had been living in that was about to be leveled.
It was one of many items Watkins would move that day, and it was about to get a lot hotter.
On one the hottest days of the year so far, the city of Seattle cleared a homeless encampment on Third Avenue South and South Walker Street in Sodo where at least 30 people had been living.
The city plans to clear two other encampments during a heat advisory issued by the National Weather Service for noon Tuesday to Friday night, when temperatures around Seattle were forecast to exceed 90 degrees. Tuesday, a daily record of 94 degrees was recorded at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Extreme temperatures can be fatal, especially for people living outdoors with little shade or reprieve from the sun. During last year’s brutal heat wave, several people who were presumed to be homeless were confirmed or suspected to have died from heat exposure when temperatures topped out in the 100s.
Seattle also plans to clear a small encampment at Woodland Park Zoo on Wednesday and a cluster of RVs in Eastlake on Thursday, according to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office. Spokesperson Jamie Housen wrote there is only one tent and one structure in Woodland Park Zoo, but it is up against combustible material which could be a safety risk, especially during the heat wave.
Housen wrote that these removals have been scheduled for weeks before a heat wave was forecast, and they are being completed “with the aim of addressing the public health and safety concerns at those sites while helping those experiencing homelessness get indoors, into shelter, and out of the heat.”
The city said it would connect homeless people with cooling centers that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority opened Tuesday morning, provide bus tickets for people to get there, perform welfare checks on homeless encampments and provide water and other supplies to people.
The remaining residents of the Sodo encampment hurried to pack and leave as excavators and loaders hummed and beeped and police officers stood by.
“Five minutes, you have to be off-site,” a Seattle Parks and Recreation employee told Watkins as he rushed to pack his bike trailer with as many of his belongings as he could.
Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales, whose district includes Sodo, ripped into Harrell’s decision to remove the encampment during a heat wave.
“What we saw today was a continued failure of our city response to addressing the root causes of homelessness,” Morales’ office wrote in a statement. “We know that this extreme heat is dangerous for the many medically vulnerable folks who lived on this street, and being swept is challenging enough without the added stressor of the scorching temperature.”
The city and county have also been receiving emails from advocates asking for a halt to homeless encampment removals at least until after the heat wave.
Morales added that there had not been enough shelter capacity to move everyone at the Sodo encampment inside if they wanted it.
Rebecca Gilley, who coordinated outreach for REACH at the encampment, agreed. She said she couldn’t offer everyone at the encampment shelter because there had not been enough resources prioritized that fit the needs of the people living there.
The mayor’s office responded that “there remain more than enough open spaces in air-conditioned indoor shelters for those who were living onsite at this morning.” Many people had left before this morning.
Gilley added that the extreme heat exacerbates the physical exertion of moving and the emotional toll of losing one’s home and belongings.
“That’s a lot to handle for people,” Gilley said.
The King County Regional Homelessness Authority also distanced itself from the Sodo removal.
“(The Regional Homelessness Authority) does not support displacement,” wrote the authority’s communications director Anne Martens. “When we work with partners to resolve an encampment, resolution means that every person has an opportunity to come inside with dignity.”
Harrell’s office said it offered shelter to everyone, starting outreach at the beginning of July. Official notice was given Friday that the clearing would happen Tuesday. Harrell’s office said that 21 people indicated they wanted to go to shelter but that it was unable to provide the number of people who actually enrolled in shelter as of Tuesday.
On Tuesday, outreach workers walked around the encampment offering people cold water and Gatorade and last-minute offers of shelter. Some people planned to take those offers. Crystal Rawlings said she and her boyfriend got on a waitlist for a tiny home, and that the city is putting them up in a hotel temporarily.
But others planned to set up their tent somewhere else outside, some of whom said they had not been offered another place to go.
At the edge of the encampment, leaned up against his car that he sells ice cream out of as a side hustle, Shawn Parenteau waited for his home of the last few months to be demolished. A few weeks ago, he said outreach workers promised him and his girlfriend shelter. But after a shooting at an Aurora homeless encampment on July 17, he said outreach workers told him they needed that shelter for the people on Aurora.
He’s worried that the heat this week will affect his performance at work as a traffic control supervisor for the state.
His girlfriend, Stephanie Emard, said the heat can make tempers rise, hers included. During last year’s high temperatures, she saw more domestic disputes and fights in homeless encampments. And despite there being several cooling centers open around the city, she says it can be difficult for people to travel there.
“I’m right on the cusp of getting everything back in order, man. I just need a little bit of foundation and then I’m there,” Parenteau said.
As of Tuesday morning, he and Emard planned to set up a tent somewhere else.
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