Legislation to provide modest protections for unhoused people living in unsanctioned tent encampments continued moving forward on parallel tracks this week, as an 18-member task force appointed by Mayor Ed Murray scrambled to come up with “guiding principles” to send to the council’s human services committee, chaired by Sally Bagshaw, in time for a Thursday-morning hearing on a separate bill that would effectively end random encampment sweeps. Murray spokesman Benton Strong told me after Wednesday night’s meeting that the task force still hopes to come up with legislation for the mayor to propose in lieu of the bill the council is currently considering.
Meanwhile, the council is barreling forward with its own legislation that would make it harder to sweep homeless encampments. The legislation, which was originally drafted by the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services, would bar the city from removing tents and property at encampments in “suitable” locations without at least 30 days’ notice and referrals to “adequate and accessible housing,” which can be long-term overnight shelter, and “stable services that can lead to housing, rather than a return to homelessness.”
The legislation would also set up a shorter process for clearing out encampments that create an immediate health or safety risk to residents of the encampment or the surrounding area, and would specifically bar encampments in places where there is a “specific public use,” such as schools, playgrounds, and sidewalks. In those cases, the city would have to provide 48 hours’ notice, and provide an alternative spot that is “suitable” for the encampment to relocate. All of this would be backed up with the threat of a $250 for violating the ordinance.
As Josh Feit at PubliCola pointed out this morning, most of the council seems more or less on board with this basic framework, although some have balked at the $250 fine, saying it would be costly to implement and could open up the city to frivolous lawsuits. Only Tim Burgess, a former cop who occupies the “conservative” end of the generally left-leaning council dais, seems totally opposed to the proposal; he argued Thursday that if the city could no longer clear camps with relative impunity, police would be compelled not to respond to calls for service at encampments, a worst-case scenario that council staffer Ketil Freeman dispensed with quickly, saying police could respond to 911 calls “as long as the assistance was done in accordance with these principles.”
Burgess had to leave early. But before he did, he threw down this warning: “If we follow the approach that the committee is discussing, we are essentially voting to allow permanent camping in the city on public property that the city defines as ‘suitable.’ That’s one of my core concerns about this ordinance: It suggests that our response to homelessness is to allow camping in the city.” His suggestion: Expand the number of sanctioned encampments, which have been a relatively stable housing solution for some unsheltered people. Bagshaw responded that she wasn’t opposed to that idea, but pointed out that “that is not going to solve the problem,” in part because sanctioned encampments impose rules that many people find intolerable, including a blanket proscription on drugs and alcohol.
With Burgess dispatched, the rest of the council appeared to reach a few points of consensus: First, that the current system, in which the city slaps a notice on campers’ tents giving them 72 hours to leave a location, then comes back in a few days to confiscate their belongings and tell them about existing shelter options, isn’t working. (The problem isn’t that people aren’t aware of shelters, it’s that most shelters are full, and that they have possessions, partners, and preferences that shelters don’t accommodate.) Second, that the definitions of terms like “accessible and available housing” and “unsuitable locations” need some massaging. Third, that easing the rules on encampments isn’t a long-term solution; instead, Bagshaw argued, it should be an interim step, to allow the mayor’s office time to “breathe” and come up with a systemic response to homelessness. (They’re working on that, for better or worse.) And fourth, that while the council debates solutions, the city should at least spend some money cleaning up trash around encampment sites, since homeless people don’t have easy access to Dumpsters and garbage bags. “We penalize business owners when someone sprays graffiti on their outdoors and we force them to repaint it,” council member Bruce Harrell said. “It seems to me that the city should have incredible liability when we see the amounts of trash in areas [where people are camping], and we are not being responsible enough to clean it up.”
The council also agreed to remove people living in RVs and cars from the legislation, since they present a different set of challenges than people sleeping outside in tents.
For those imagining that the federal government will come in and deliver enough housing dollars to make the problem go away, Bagshaw concluded with a warning. “This is a city problem. It’s also a county problem. But what I do believe, after spending time in Washington D.C. and the state of Washington, in the governor’s office is: The cavalry is not coming. We are going to have to solve this … in a very short time period. One of the things we can’t do is to wait another two years to have someone decide this. We’re going to have to do this right away.”
On this issue, the momentum all seems to be with the council. Although the mayor’s task force continues to meet, and is supposed come up with some sort of recommendations by the end of the month, it remains unclear what form those will take, and whether the 18 task force members can reach consensus. At the fourth task force meeting Wednesday, Neighborhood Safety Alliance leader Gretchen Taylor, one of the neighborhood activists Murray appointed to the task force, was still asking “why must we allow camping” at all, and discussing whether endorsing “low-barrier shelters” a good idea, given that some people will prefer not to worry that their bunkmate is high or that he has a pet. Given that Seattle doesn’t have any low-barrier shelters that would meet the standard of “adequate and accessible housing” yet, this seems like a highly rhetorical, and pointlessly theoretical, discussion.
Critics and advocates of the task force have reminded me that this is just how the mayor works: Set up a task force that includes people with opposing perspectives, “lock ’em in a room,” and don’t let them out until they come up with a consensus. Two problems with that theory. One is that the mayor’s office hasn’t been much of a presence at these meetings; only George Scarola, Murray’s homelessness coordinator (a high-profile appointment Murray made last month), has sat quietly through the meetings from beginning to end. This (along with some pretty loosey-goosey facilitation) has allowed the loudest advocates to use up a huge amount of time each week grandstanding, so that the last few minutes become a scramble to summarize everything and come up with “next steps.” (As Alliance for Pioneer Square director Leslie Smith put it at last week’s meeting, “I have completely lost track [of] what the charge of this group is.”)
The other is that there’s really no urgency to come up with legislation. The council already has legislation. The task force could be considering the council’s bill, and working to address any deficiencies they see in that proposal. But that would require the mayor to concede that the council has him in checkmate, and that his steadfast support for sweeps has put him in a weak political position. So instead, they’re sitting in service to a classic Murray temper tantrum.
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