In “Call To Action,” Homelessness Advocates Demand Changes to City’s Sweeps Program

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In an “Open Letter ” to the council and Mayor Ed Murray (provided to The C Is for Crank this afternoon), representatives of the ACLU of Washington, Columbia Legal Services, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, and the Public Defender Association proposed legislation that would dramatically curb the “sweeps” of homeless encampments that have become routine across the city, in which homeless people are forced to “move along” to another location on the grounds that the camps represent an imminent health and safety hazard. Often, the city confiscates the property (including IDs, medications, clothing, and blankets) of anyone who isn’t present during a sweep, leaving people living in already tenuous circumstances more marginalized and desperate than they were before.

In the letter, the advocates expressed their dismay at the city’s ongoing policy of sweeping homeless encampments without providing anywhere for people to go or any realistic way for them to retrieve their belongings. Noting that nearly 10 months have passed since Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness and promised to add millions in city resources to address the crisis, the letter demands, “When thousands of people are forced to live in public spaces, addressing their needs as best they can, the City must not pursue policies that harm people and make it more difficult to help them. The City must not continue policies which chase people from one place to another, without effectively answering the question: Where can people go?”

The ordinance the groups are proposing, drafted by Columbia Legal Services, would effectively ban the city from forcibly removing people and their belongings from an encampment unless they are able to offer them “stable services that can lead to housing, rather than a return to homelessness.” Right now, street outreach workers who approach homeless people living in camps can only offer immediate access to short-term shelters, and possibly a spot on a waiting list for permanent housing or treatment at some indefinite point in the future. For people with belongings, pets, partners, or just an aversion to sleeping on a cot or the floor in a potentially dangerous or bedbug-infested common room, camping under a bridge is often a better option.

Specifically, the proposal would:

• Bar the city from impounding property or forcing people to leave a campsite unless they have been offered “adequate and accessible housing” at least 30 days prior to the sweep. (“Adequate and accessible housing” is defined as long-term housing where people can store their belongings long-term, with “living standards commonly acceptable to society,” and that is actually accessible to the people who want to live there, meaning that people won’t be turned away because they have a family or a criminal record, for example).

The ordinance would also set up an 11-member advisory committee to oversee the implementation of the new policy, with only one member appointed by the mayor (the other 10 would be appointed by the council).
• Require the city to engage in a 30-day outreach process with people living in encampments, and provide them with access to services that are actually available, before forcing people to leave. The city would also have to give 30 days’ notice before removing people’s personal property; currently, according to estimates in the Seattle Times‘ comprehensive and damning recent story on the sweeps, only about 1 to 2 percent of the property the city confiscates in sweeps is ever retrieved.
• Mandate a new process by which people who lose their belongings in sweeps can retrieve their property to replace the current system, which requires people to travel to the city’s sign production shop on Airport Way to retrieve their belongings during regular business hours.
• Create a new process for shutting down encampments that present an immediate safety or health risk to the people living in an encampment or the surrounding neighborhood. Among other new requirements, the city would have to provide basic garbage, sanitation, and harm reduction services at the site, conduct individualized outreach among the residents, and, importantly, “make available a nearby, alternative location to camp or park that is not unsafe or unsuitable to all affected individuals.”
The ordinance would also set up an 11-member advisory committee to oversee the implementation of the new policy, with only one member appointed by the mayor (the other 10 would be appointed by the council).
It’s worth noting that the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services were both asked to be on the special sweeps advisory committee Murray announced last week; both groups declined to participate. The mayor’s advisory committee includes representatives of adamantly pro-sweeps groups like the Ballard Chamber of Commerce, along with mainstream homelessness advocacy groups and housing providers like All Home and the Downtown Emergency Service Center and neighborhood business groups like the Alliance for Pioneer Square and the SODO Business Improvement Area. Also this week, Murray appointed a new director of homelessness programs, former education reform lobbyist and Frank Chopp right-hand man George Scarola. Scarola, who Murray has known since his time in the state house in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is a political operative and policy wonk who has little experience, so far, in the world of homelessness politics and policy.
By proposing an ordinance directly to the council (complete with an enticing carrot—the council would control the advisory committee, and each council member could appoint his or her own representative to the group), the advocacy groups are attempting an end run around the mayor, whose own approach to the sweeps has been seen as haphazard and highly contentious.