Mayor Selby and Council Members,
By now, most of you have likely received an update about what took place along Ensign Road yesterday morning.
Monday night, we were able to share the news with residents that the sweep was put on hold after the City received a letter from the Attorney General’s Office asserting that they believed the sweep would likely be considered a violation of the State’s eviction moratorium. We also let people know that the City would still be there in the morning asking people to leave, but that they would not “compel” anyone to leave.
We did not tell them to expect the road to be barricaded on both ends with cones, public works vehicles, and police. We did not tell them that they might be at risk of receiving tickets if they stayed. We did not tell them that their advocates would not be allowed beyond the barricade to support them.
We did not tell them any of this, simply because we did not know to expect that ourselves.
We received calls from residents who were scared and confused, asking us what was going on and where we were. We had to tell them that we were stuck behind the barricades – staff had designated the street as a “work site” and blocked it off to all advocates, including Family Support Center staff. The “work” turned out to be the installation of some small signs designating Ensign Road as a No Parking Zone. This process only took a few minutes but somehow necessitated them blocking off the street to traffic and potential witnesses for hours. Legal observers were also not allowed in, even upon the request of residents.
Then there was the confusion about tickets. Residents sought us out beyond the barricades because they were being threatened with tickets if they stayed. They were then told that only those who left could not come back without risking a ticket. Then the information changed again—everyone would be at-risk of receiving a ticket. Finally, residents were told that the City actually doesn’t know yet. In effect, the subtext of a continually changing message was the real message – that the residents of Ensign Road would face a threatening uncertainty if they stayed, subject to the whims of City staff rather than any clearly interpretable law or policy.
One person, feeling the pressure of potentially being ticketed, agreed to leave in order to get a gas card. When asked where he was going, he responded—“I don’t know, I guess to Never Never Land.” Another resident told us that they were offered 4 nights in a hotel if they agreed to abandon their vehicle. They declined after it was made clear that a place to stay after those 4 nights was not guaranteed.
Pushing people to abandon their vehicles or the relatively secure location they have depended on for shelter for months by dangling tempting resources and a few nights in a hotel room in front of them is unethical and immoral—especially when it is coupled with an ambiguous threat of ticketing, made while separated from advocates and surrounded by flashing lights, police vehicles,heavy machinery, and tow trucks. Would you have been able to make a clear decision, based on what was best for you and your loved ones in that situation? Do you think that those who decided to leave did so without feeling compelled?
A number of the residents along Ensign Road have endured the trauma of sweeps multiple times, and the city’s show of force during their “non-sweep” seemed to have no other purpose than to evoke the panic and powerlessness of their past experiences.
Staff maintain that people were told what to expect, that they were clear that people didn’t have to leave, and that resources were not being offered in a morally questionable way.
The City, the residents, and JHO could probably go back and forth for forever about what was said and what was not said. The reality is that by not permitting anyone else to go past the barricades, staff created a situation where they could be the only ones, outside of the residents, to know the “truth.”
Staff are asserting that they were just sticking with the plan and that the only thing the AG’s letter changed was that they wouldn’t be “compelling” people to leave. What we fail to understand is why it was necessary to stick to a plan created to enforce a sweep, when the sweep itself had been cancelled. Why was it necessary to barricade the road with police and separate people from their advocates if there was truly nothing to hide? Why was it necessary to bring up ticketing before any plan for ticketing has been confirmed, if the goal was not to compel people to leave?
We cannot think of a diplomatic way to say this.
Staff violated every best practice and common sense practice related to protecting vulnerable people, particularly during the era of COVID-19. Staff, knowing they were in a position of power over residents, and having a clearly demonstrated motive to remove them but no right to, decided that it was appropriate to isolate them from their advocates and legal observers so that they could “encourage” them to leave with no one else watching.
Very recently the Council passed an extension of the Eviction Moratorium that was strong and with an unambiguous intention: to keep people in their housing. What would your reaction be if you learned that landlords in the community were responding to your eviction moratorium by intimidating or bribing tenants into waiving their rights? A right is not a right unless it can be freely exercised. Just as voters in our country have sometimes found themselves enfranchised on paper but disenfranchised in practice, the residents of Ensign Road, less than a day after having their rights affirmed by the Attorney General’s letter, nevertheless found themselves pressured by all manner of tricks into waiving those rights.
What took place along Ensign Road yesterday morning caused undue and unnecessary harm. We believe that actions should be taken to remedy those harms.
- Any City coordinated tactics or actions that could be reasonably construed as pressuring or harassing people into leaving Ensign Road should cease immediately. Energy and resources should instead be redirected towards working with the County and their commitment of $530,000 to go towards a safe and legal Safe Parking option.
- People who made the decision to leave Ensign Road under duress, particularly after the cancellation of the sweep, should be given the choice to return to Ensign Road, without the threat of ticketing.
- Put in place a permitting system along Ensign Road that exempts all of those who were residing along Ensign Road at the time the sweep was initially halted from tickets for parking.
- The City should support the return of the vehicles of two residents on Ensign Road whose vehicles were wrongly towed on 10/14/2020. One person was blocks away when their home was towed away. Another person came home from work to find the vehicle they’d been living in for one year gone. Those vehicles are currently being held under the threat of auction, even though they are considered people’s homes. Considering these vehicles were taken under the wrongful assumption that they were abandoned, we would hope the City would facilitate their return at no cost to the residents.
- We believe that the residents deserve an apology.
If you share any of our concerns related to what transpired, we hope that you will work to help ensure that at least some of these reparative steps are taken.
Please reach out if you would like to talk about this situation more or if you have any questions.
Just Housing Olympia