EVERETT — As local authorities dispersed homeless people from a downtown street corner on Wednesday, a dozen protesters a block away called on the city to clear the way for sanctioned encampments where unsheltered people can access the help they need to get off the streets for good.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office cleared about 20 people from Matthew Parsons Park at Wall Street and Rockefeller Avenue, allowing a contractor to erect a chain link fence around the area to prevent folks from staying there, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Courtney O’Keefe.
With few other options for where to go, as many as 60 people have occupied the small park on any given day since two other encampments were broken up last month, according to Jason Cockburn, founder of the nonprofit Second Chance Foundation that aims to provide homeless people with the support they need to find permanent housing.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought renewed urgency to an issue that has long stumped city leaders, igniting tensions between elected officials and a handful of nonprofits that regularly interact with people experiencing homelessness.
Cockburn and other critics say city and county leaders are erecting more and more fences, shunting homeless people from one location to the next and scattering them helter-skelter, instead of providing a more permanent fix.
City and county officials, however, insist they’re trying to connect people with housing and resources now, while working toward more long-term solutions.
Representatives from the county Department of Human Services offered hotel and motel vouchers and other resources to those lingering at the park, said county spokesman Kent Patton. Camping in the park “is not safe or sanitary right now,” Patton said.
Steps away from the park, Cockburn and other demonstrators gathered at noon outside the Everett Municipal Building.
“I’m not asking the city to wave any kind of magic wand,” Cockburn told the small crowd. “I’m just asking them to get out of my way and let me do what I signed up to do.”
County leaders in July called for the dispersal of a homeless encampment near Wall Street and Oakes Avenue. Cockburn and other nonprofit leaders then tried to move the encampment to a vacant lot on Rucker Avenue; although they had the consent of the property owner, neighboring businesses complained, and city code enforcement ordered the camp to be broken up.
In both instances, city and county officials cited health and safety concerns in their decisions to disband the camps. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, has recommended that local authorities allow such encampments amid the pandemic because dispersal can sever people’s ties with service providers and increase the risk of infection transmission.
City officials have also said the Rucker Avenue encampment lacked a temporary use permit, which city code stipulates can only be obtained through an application process that takes at least 45 days.
Cockburn and Robert Smiley, of the local nonprofit The Hand Up Project, say they were able to steer more than a dozen people toward addiction treatment or housing at the Rucker encampment. Many others asked for help, but Cockburn and Smiley have struggled to find them since the sweep.
“There’s a million reasons why a sanctioned camp with nonprofits at the helm is better than a non-sanctioned camp on a street corner,” Cockburn said.
Toni Hartse, 41, said she had “no clue” where she would sleep that night after packing up her things at Matthew Parsons Park. She stayed at the Rucker encampment until she no longer could.
“At least I knew where I was going to lay my head at night,” she said. “I had a bathroom to use.”
The city and county say they’ve made strides to prevent homelessness and get more people off the streets.
Both governments have allocated relief funding from the federal CARES Act to housing security programs.
A few hundred people have been provided with vouchers for hotels and motels, and the county’s Department of Human Services is now trying to move those people into more permanent housing, officials have said.
Social workers have partnered with law enforcement to connect people with substance abuse treatment, mental health care and other resources.
And a local program helps families who live in their cars find safe places to park at night.
But the protesters — toting signs that read “What’s the plan?” and “Move where?” — are asking for more affordable housing and supportive housing developments, as well as a quicker path to permitted encampments.
“What is happening is not working,” said Laura Reed, 30, of Everett. “It has never worked.”
On Wednesday, homeless people were again gathering near the county’s Carnegie Resource Center. About a half dozen rested on the center’s lawn.
“We’ve come full circle,” Cockburn said. “It’s right back where it started. It’s been two weeks, and we’ve accomplished very little.”