City Council to consider proposal regulating Seattle homeless encampment sweeps

(Image: @Homeless2Housed via Twitter)

(Image: @Homeless2Housed via Twitter)

As Seattle’s City Hall approaches the one-year mark since Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency for homelessness, the City Council has agreed to take up legislation that could be the driver of the most significant change people living on Seattle’s streets will have seen since.

Tuesday, the council voted 7-1 to accept legislation drafted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington for consideration at the committee level, adding a proposal that would put structure around how the city removes homeless encampments and forcing officials to provide alternatives to people displaced by the sweeps.

District 3 representative Kshama Sawant, who co-sponsored the proposal, said it is time for action and that the recent sweep of a camp in The Jungle greenbelt below I-5 was “an illustration of the complete ineffectiveness and inhumanity of sweeps,” that move “homeless people from one street corner to the next.”

Under the proposal, homeless people camping on public land deemed to pose a safety risk could be cleared after a 48-hour notice. People camping in other areas would be required to receive a 30-day notice and provided with alternative shelter.

The city says there has been 441 encampment sweeps since the homeless state of emergency was declared last November. “During those cleanups only 126 people were connected with shelter or housing while outreach workers actually engaged 1,852 individuals,” a statement on the proposal reads.

Mayor Ed Murray has proposed a different framework for regulating sweeps driven by a task force and his newly hired director of homelessness.

Prior to Tuesdays vote, Sawant took a swing at Murray’s frequently used task force model. “Enough talk,” she said. “Let’s just do something to end homelessness and provide affordable housing to everybody.”

City Council member Sally Bagshaw who heads the Human Services and Public Health committee that will consider the legislation, has said September’s meetings will be dedicated to discussing the sweep regulations.

The full announcement from the City Council about Tuesday’s vote is below:

Councilmembers Rob Johnson, Lisa Herbold, Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant unveiled legislation today that would revamp the City’s current practice of encampment sweeps, allowing for clear outs after the City fulfils certain conditions. The legislation was developed with the goal of protecting public safety and connecting the unhoused with permanent housing options. Councilmembers intend for this legislation to go through the legislative process in parallel to, and informed by, the work of the Mayor’s Unsanctioned Encampments Cleanup Protocols Task Force to ensure implementation before the winter months.

The legislation unveiled today has been amended to address concerns that have been aired in recent days, clarifying the City’s role in managing and clearing encampments. The new legislation would allow for encampment clear outs, with the following conditions:

·         Outdoor living spaces in locations deemed unsuitable or unsafe are to be cleared with 48 hours notice, and the City must offer an alternative location for people to relocate;

·         Camping on sidewalks, rights of way, school grounds, private property, highway overpasses, among other unsuitable locations, would not be allowed;

·         For outdoor living areas that are not deemed unsafe, unsuitable, or hazardous, residents will be cleared out only after being offered an adequate and accessible housing option with at least 30 days advance written notice;

·         Outdoor living spaces that have garbage accumulation and/or presence of unsanitary elements would be qualified as hazardous. Before clearing out the space, the City must first attempt to remedy the hazardous situation (for example, garbage containers, sharps containers, portable restrooms);

·         Removed personal property must be catalogued and kept for a minimum of 90 days at storage locations accessible by public transit which operate beyond normal business hours;

·         A 10 member advisory committee be created to provide recommendations on the City’s ongoing removal and impoundment actions;

·         Further amendments will be considered through the Council’s legislative process.

Current City protocol provides homeless residents 72 hours notice before each sweep occurs and access to outreach workers to connect to shelter and services. In practice, the notice has sometimes been as little as 24 hours, and an outreach worker often does not have available shelters or services to offer to individuals that meet their needs. Personal belongings are either disposed of or sent to a facility in an industrial area for pickup. 

A Seattle Times story recently illustrated problems with the City’s current outdoor living space cleanup protocol, including improperly destroyed personal belongings, inconsistency in cleanup notice and scheduling, unsuitable access to confiscated belongings, and exacerbating trauma onto marginalized populations. 

According to the Human Services Department, the City has conducted 441 cleanups, or “sweeps” of outdoor living spaces since the declaration of the State of Emergency on Homelessness last November.  During those cleanups only 126 people were connected with shelter or housing while outreach workers actually engaged 1,852 individuals. The ineffectiveness of the current protocols is also depicted in the fact that many outdoor living space cleanups are done multiple times Because of repeat processes, the City constrains its resources and the proposed legislation will help stabilize those situations to ensure neighborhood safety and health.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold (District 1, West Seattle & South Park) said, “People are sleeping outside because they have no place to go, and that’s the reality. This legislation is meant to set the parameters for what is safe and what isn’t, and it’s largely intended to inspire the City to get serious about providing stable housing opportunities for people living on the streets.”

Councilmember Rob Johnson (District 4, Northeast Seattle) said, “Reforms to the current approach are necessary to ensure we are treating our unsheltered neighbors with decency and respect. While recent steps have been made toward increasing the affordable housing stock in Seattle (such as passing the Mandatory Housing Affordability Residential framework last month), we must work in the meantime to enact better, more compassionate short term solutions.  I look forward to working collaboratively with the Mayor’s taskforce, advocates, and members from the business community to make sure that we come up with an effective plan to this complex issue. ”

“If our larger goal is to transition unsheltered people and families into permanent housing, then continually displacing them, destabilizing their lives, and compromising relationships and connections to services is not producing the results we need,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien (District 6, Northwest Seattle). “Many community members have approached me with concerns about increased garbage, human waste, and needles in their neighborhoods, which is why this legislation will require that the City provide sharps containers, public restrooms, and garbage pickup for those sites where we find unsanitary conditions. We all deserve clean and safe neighborhoods.” 

Councilmember Kshama Sawant (District 3, Central Seattle) said, “Spending millions of dollars moving homeless people from one street corner to another is inhumane and ineffective. Instead, this money should be directed towards basic services and shelter. Also, the $160 million slated for a new North Police Precinct should be used to build a 1,000 units of city-owned affordable rental housing. The Council needs to address the root causes of the homelessness crisis and the lack of affordable housing.”

The legislation was developed in collaboration with advocacy organizations and homeless service providers who have the on-the-ground work experience in case management for the unsheltered, including the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness ACLU of Washington, Columbia Legal Services, Public Defender Association, Seattle Community Law Association, Real Change, and people experiencing homelessness.

 Councilmembers are requesting that the legislation be initially considered in the Council’s Human Services & Public Health Committee on September 14 at 2 p.m.

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11 thoughts on “City Council to consider proposal regulating Seattle homeless encampment sweeps

  1. Those big sports stadiums built with public funds are rarely used and could be great transitional housing for the burgeoning homeless population.

    • I sincerely hope you’re joking since those “sports stadiums” are constantly in use. And unlike the homeless they actually contribute to the culture of Seattle.

      I love the idea of acting humanly to pick up trash and clean up after people who have no appreciation or concern of humanity for themselves. Why we continue to allocate time, resources, and money in “doing no harm” when the people you are advocating for don’t care! You have city workers who paint areas only to have street kids graffiti the same wall within hours, you have crack heads who shoot up and leave needles in parks and public bushes, and you have people with no desire to better themselves or take accountability for their actions. I’m just tired of our passive solutions.

    • Dan–Honestly, you’ll need to move to a gated community or at least an affluent suburban area to escape the urban issues mentioned. And as hard as this may be to grasp, not all homeless people have the same histories, behaviors or attitude. This is meant with all due respect–I doubt anyone enjoys stepping over people or in excrement that they hope belongs to a dog when walking down the sidewalk. And being spare changed by someone who appears high can jade the softest among us. But issuing judgements without solutions serves no one.
      On a side note–I 100% support more porta-potties and sharps containers! Why not?

    • Local Mom – I’m with you on the portapotties and sharps containers. That said, the plan to leave the homeless in place and removing consequences for anti-social behavior isn’t really a solution either. Personally, I think we need to come to grips with the fact that a fair number of these people will likely never be self-sufficient and need to be given housing/money. Or we just let them live in tents and give them food, which seems to be the current “solution”. Frankly, allowing the less functional among us to live in tents doesn’t seem that humane to me.

  2. Seattle has been a destination for drifters for years. I doubt basically giving them free rein to any public area will solve the problem, but hey it’s worth a try. Or we could just build more and more transitional housing (but then more homeless will come). Oh that’s right, they’re all local people just down on their luck.

  3. According to a Seattle Times article, the City Council voted to refer the proposal to committee BEFORE they heard public testimony on the issue. In other words, their mind was made up ….the public be damned! They should be ashamed, but probably aren’t.

    I wonder who will decide what camps are a safety risk, and what criteria would be used? It seems to me this judgment is going to be very subjective.

    • Bob, it’s called the legislative process. There will be public comment in committee and public comment in full council again. This is how we actually make laws.

  4. I don’t have a problem with the spirit of this legislation but I do have problems with the details and language. This legislation as stated above sets up a lot of room for abuse and even lawsuits.

    Will camping by city park’s play structure require 48 hours notice to vacate? What about parking strips? They’re publicly owned but privately maintained. Maybe I’m missing something, but theoretically, I could set up camp right in front of the Mayor’s Office, on the sidewalk, for however long it takes them to give notice plus 48 hours.

    How will the city keep track of who has been given notice and who hasn’t? Who will be in charge of this? Will there be new homeless police? Who will pay for this?

    What about people who live in their cars? They currently have 72 hours before they move from city streets, will the city have to add alternative suggestions to that orange sticker placed on the windows that warn about their car being towed?

    I agree that just kicking homeless people down the street is pointless and I’m all for providing waste removal services for homeless in area’s like the Jungle. But there is just too much wrong with this legislation.

  5. I was listening to a report on NPR last night and it talked about how there needs to be a program and a process in place, otherwise the constant rousting of homeless encampments just further removes any stability from them, and basically just kicks them to the next street corner. Given the time they took to gather data and do analysis, I’m interested to see how the new Rapid Re-housing programs work. Apparently, statistically, the majority helped through these programs don’t become homeless again, they just need a hand up. You need an address to get a job to make money to pay down debt to continue to pay rent, to buy food, to get consistent medical and emotional help. So much is attached to just having an address.

  6. I don’t mind the current *neat* encampments I drive by outside of residential areas if they have a chance of being temporary. Who would choose to live in a tent when you could be rousted at any moment? In the meantime, I support the idea of offering more porta potties and garbage cans.

    There’s also a lot that needs to go to dealing with mental illness in this country. SPD is doing a good job with their crisis management training for dealing with people “in crisis”. I like a lot of what I read in Hillary Clinton’s recently revealed plan for a nation-wide initiative.

    • No legislation is perfect. It’s always just a starting place. The law is a blunt instrument. It takes execution policy, etc. to address the minutiae of case-by-case services. Is this a step in the right direction? I hope. A lot of people seem to be putting a lot of careful thought into it.