By Leo Brine
On Thursday, House Democrats amended legislation creating a new office to deal with encampments in public rights-of-way, removing many of the provisions that homeless advocates feared would be used to sweep encampments indiscriminately—and leaving unanswered questions about what its actual impact would be.
The bill, originally requested by Gov, Jay Inslee (SB 5662) and sponsored Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-48, Bellevue), would create a new Office of Intergovernmental Coordination on Public Right-of-Way Homeless Encampments within the Department of Social and Health Services.
The job of the office would be to coordinate efforts to respond to homeless encampments Washington State Department of Transportation right-of-way, such as underneath highway overpasses, with the ultimate goal of “reducing the number of encamped persons through transition to a permanent housing solution so that the encampment is closed with the site either restored to original conditions or preserved for future use.”
Kuderer said the office would identify new permanent housing or shelter options and offer them to people living in WSDOT rights-of-way before removing people from where they are—“meeting people where they’re at” and connecting them with services and resources.
The bill’s ultimate goal is to transition people living in encampments to permanent housing, she said, but Kuderer told PubliCola she wanted to include temporary shelters and other sanctioned encampment options in the bill so people will have a place to live that’s not next to a highway while the state tries to create more permanent housing.
Affordable housing and homeless advocacy groups like the ACLU, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness fear that without changes, the bill could be used to justify encampment sweeps.
Alison Eisinger, the Executive Director of the Coalition, told PubliCola, “We appreciate the changes made in the House, and we really like investments in housing and services, but we would be opposed to any bill that encourages sweeps.”
Currently, the bill says encampments on WSDOT property will get priority access to shelter and housing, with encampments that pose “the greatest health and safety risk to the encamped population, the public, or workers on the right-of-way” rising to the top of the list. In practice, this could mean that people living in encampments on WSDOT property would get priority for shelter, services, or housing over other unsheltered people because of their location alone.
“Shelter or housing plans should be complete before engaging persons encamped on the public rights-of-way,” the bill says. However, the bill also stipulates that if there are “concerns over public health and safety, worker access and safety, and public access,” jurisdictions could remove an encampment and displace campers without offering them anywhere to go. In Seattle, a similar set of guidelines has enabled the city to define virtually any encampment in any public space, including sidewalks and parks, as an “obstruction,” allowing it to remove encampments without offering shelter or services and without any advance notice.
Advocates also point out that the bill’s description of the process for transitioning people into housing is vague. The bill expresses the “intent” that cities and other jurisdictions will “engage” unsheltered people “with teams of multidisciplinary experts focused in trauma-informed care” and offer them “provisions of service” with the goal of moving them to permanent housing. But it does not explain who the experts would be, how they would provide “trauma-informed care,” what counts as “service,” and what counts as a “housing solution.”
WLIHA’s Michele Thomas told lawmakers at the House Housing, Human Services and Veterans committee the bill is “a skeleton of a concept” that “could actually have harmful impacts” if it isn’t fleshed out.
Unlike Seattle’s last year’s unsuccessful “Compassion Seattle” plan, Kuderer’s legislation does come with money—the senate operating budget includes about $46 million for the office in 2023. Additionally, Inslee allocated $51 million of his supplemental budget to support the bill. That money includes $4.9 million for DSHS to set up the new office, $5 million to the Department of Transportation to fund encampment site restoration projects, and another $40 million for shelter, housing, and services, Inslee policy advisor Jim Baumgaurt said.
To address some of the advocates’ concerns, the House Housing, Human Services and Veterans Committee, chaired by Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Lynnwood), added an amendment to the bill that would get rid of language that said the office would lead efforts “related to reducing the number of persons in unsanctioned encampments” near highways. Advocates feared someone could use the language to interpret the office’s primary goal as sweeping encampments near freeways.
Advocates wanted these protections added to the bill because Washington cities have routinely penalized people for sleeping in public. Last year, for example, Mercer Island banned camping or storing items on public property, and Auburn’s City Council voted to increase the punishment for camping on city property from a civil infraction to a misdemeanor charge. A 2015 study from Seattle University also found that Auburn had 14 local ordinances that, according to researchers, criminalize homelessness, the most of any city with a population above 70,000 in Washington state.
Kuderer said she’s not surprised advocates still want changes, and says she’s “more than open” to make them. “Taking people from a right-of-way and moving them someplace else so they’re out of sight, out of mind is not the answer and it’s not what I want to do with this bill.” Kuderer said she’s focused on changing language in the bill which said the office would “support and enhance existing memoranda of agreement” between state and local government agencies. She said she was told cities could use their pre-existing agreements with the state to “work around” the intent of the bill.
The bill still has a few more stops before legislators can adopt the new amendment. The House Appropriations Committee will review the bill next, followed by the Rules Committee.