Mayor Ed Murray’s 18-member Task Force on Unsanctioned Encampment Cleanup Protocols held its final meeting on Tuesday morning, a day after Mayor Ed Murray released a budget that included $2.8 million to “implement [their] recommendations” and a day before the council committee in charge of updating and improving the city’s current policy on homeless sweeps held one of its final meetings on a set of new sweeps protocols that the mayor opposes. The legislation in front of the council, which was originally drafted by the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services, would bar the city from removing tents and property at encampments, except those in “unsuitable,” “unsafe,” or “hazardous” locations, without at least 30 days’ notice and referrals to “adequate and accessible housing.”
Originally, the mayor’s encampment task force was charged with crafting new encampment cleanup protocols, which would be integrated into legislation that the mayor would transmit to the council by the end of September. Instead—after the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services circumvented the mayor by proposing legislation of their own, which District 6 council member Mike O’Brien sponsored—the task force ended up producing a general, innocuous list of “guiding principles” that are now supposed to guide the council as it amends the ACLU legislation.
Former city council member Sally Clark, who chaired the task force, said its mission got muddied “the moment that the task force was announced, because pretty much in the same moment, the legislation was proposed at council to change the basis of the protocols that the city uses for intervening in situations where people are living outside.” The charge of the task force, Clark says, “made lot of sense in the weeks before, but then we were like, ‘Which protocols are we supposed to be looking at? The ones in this legislation, or existing protocols?'”
Once the charge of the task force changed, Clark says, the question became, “do you want to spend five meetings looking at protocols that the council may change five days after you’ve stopped meeting, or do you want to spend your time arriving at these principles that you hope the council will use when looking at these protocols?” They went with the principles.
Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, who sat on the task force, says the group “definitely did not accomplish some of what it was charged with doing, which was reviewing and making recommendations on specific cleanup protocols. We never even got to that stuff.
“That said,” Malone continues, “I think the task force achieved something that may have some utility for the city, which is that it got pretty clear agreement across a spectrum of people as to these principles that I do believe go beyond what the city would consider to be its curet principles on these matters.” In Malone’s view, getting a group that included both members of the Magnolia-based Neighborhood Safety Alliance and the King County Coalition on Homelessness to agree on shared assumptions was a feat in itself. (Clark and other task force members I spoke with agreed with this assessment.)
Another reason the task force never got around to drafting its own protocols for encampment sweeps is that they spent so much time during their three-hour meetings getting members up to speed on the basics (“there was a lack of common understanding,” Clark says) and letting members reiterate their personal views on the impacts and causes of homelessness. (The NSA representative, Gretchen Taylor, was particularly fond of asking rhetorical questions about why the task force had been convened at all, given that camping is illegal.)
“[The task force] definitely did not accomplish some of what it was charged with doing, which was reviewing and making recommendations on specific cleanup protocols. We never even got to that stuff.” -DESC director Daniel Malone
The result was that the task force meetings felt at times like group therapy, and the “guiding principles” reflect it: They include broad statements such as “action must be taken to enhance and reform the effectiveness of our human services system,” and “do no more harm,” as well as almost meaninglessly inclusive statements such as “We recognize that the city’s current approach to managing and removing encampments has negatively impacted homeless individuals and neighborhoods and that new approaches are needed to make sure that our actions match our community values.”
The outcome is far from a win for the mayor, who certainly saw the ACLU legislation coming but may have not anticipated that the council would so eagerly embrace it; instead of undercutting the council with his own, more restrictive encampment bill, Murray is left, at best, with the option of claiming collaboration with the council after they “integrate” the principles of his task force into the ACLU legislation. Even Murray’s promise of $2.8 million to implement the task force’s recommendations falls somewhat flat; since no one knows exactly how the other $12 million Murray’s budget dedicates to programs addressing homelessness will be allocated, the committee couldn’t reach agreement on how to allocate the $2.8 million, particularly in the 20 minutes they had to discuss the matter at the very end of their final meeting Tuesday.
The council’s human services committee, meanwhile, has continued to move forward with the ACLU legislation, introducing several amendments Wednesday in response to neighborhood concerns. Specifically, commenters at last week’s meeting, along with residents who have flooded council members’ inboxes with mass emails opposing the legislation, have argued that bill as originally written would allow encampments in schools, playfields, sidewalks, and recreational areas in parks around the city. Although the bill’s sponsors and supporters said such locations would obviously be considered “unsuitable” for encampments, an amended version introduced today tightens up those restrictions, declaring schools, “improved areas” of public parks, and sidewalks in front of residences or commercial areas, as “per se unsuitable” for encampments. “A common question that I’m getting is, ‘Are we going to allow people to camp in parks or play fields where my kids are playing?'” District 4 council member Rob Johnson said. “The answer to those questions is very clearly, ‘no’.”
The new version of the bill also clarifies that the legislation only applies to city-owned property (public schools, Port of Seattle property, and other public property not owned by the city would not have to comply with the rules), removes RV and car campers from the legislation, and sets a two-year sunset date.
Although most of the council seemed pleased with the changes, at-large council member Tim Burgess, whose comments opposing the original bill sparked applause in council chambers a week ago, continued to argue that it was a waste of “energy, time, and resources,” and suggested that the council should instead work on implementing the “creatively disrupting” recommendations in a recent report that said the city could provide shelter for every homeless person within a year by simply allocating resources more efficiently. (Burgess and conspiracy-minded neighborhood activists alike are fond of the report’s somewhat simplistic, and poorly understood, conclusions.)
Burgess, along with District 2 council member Bruce Harrell, raised the specter of neighborhood micromanagement by demanding to know whether specific parts of specific parks—the grassy areas around Green Lake and the woods adjacent to proposed mountain bike trails in Cheasty Greenspace, respectively—would be considered “suitable” for camping. O’Brien countered that if the city opens up the definition of a “suitable” location to every individual neighborhood, “I think most folks will say, ‘I don’t think right next to me is OK,’ and pretty soon we get to a place where every single place in the city is unsuitable.”
Bagshaw said she expects to spend the next week in “continued negotiations” with Murray’s office over the details of the legislation, but added that time is running short. “We want to get the decision we make here into the budget for 2017 [and] make sure there’s enough money to focus on outreach and services,” Bagshaw said. “If we miss this window, it could [be] a long time before we’re able to collectively talk about it [again.] The full council could vote on the legislation as soon as October 10.
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