While Mayor Ed Murray is working to implement a plan he says could see all unsheltered residents housed by 2017, untold numbers of people continue to live on Seattle’s sidewalks and in public green spaces, and presumably would continue to do so if Murray’s plan falls short.
A bill making its way though City Council is seeking to give more protections to those people living on public property, requiring in some instances that they are offered an adequate and available place to stay before being removed. Supporters, including District 3 representative Kshama Sawant, say the alternative is to keep shuffling people around without any long term solution.
Drafted by the ACLU and introduced by Council member Mike O’Brien, the bill has stirred up controversy in City Hall for detracting from Murray’s focus on getting all unsheltered residents into permanent housing.
The pot was given another stir over the weekend as draft maps were released by Seattle’s parks and transportation departments showing where the extended protections would apply under O’Brien’s plan.
But the released maps fail to show the areas that could be taken off the list due to unsafe or unsuitable conditions.
As the fine print on one of the maps notes, further analysis would be required to “verify potentially unsuitable areas or the presence of environmentally critical areas or other use restriction.”
As is, the maps show camping protections extended to hundreds miles of sidewalks and thousands of acres of public green space, including some areas on Capitol Hill already mired in controversy over encampments.
Among the areas identified by the Parks department were Washington Park and Arboretum, Madrona Park, and Interlaken Park. Sidewalks identified by SDOT include those around the Seattle Police East Precinct at 12th and Pine, several blocks along 19th Ave E near the Miller Community Center, and the square block surrounding Lowell Elementary and the school’s play field.
Current city protocol requires a 72 hours notice before each sweep, but homeless advocates say there is often no other place for people to go and inadequate policies controlling what happens to personal possessions.
Under O’Brien’s bill, if an area is considered “suitable” and safe, those camping would get 30 days of outreach with offers to stay in appropriate shelter. A 48-hour vacate notice would be issued if the area is deemed unsafe, but more time would be allowed if something could be done to reduce the risk, like clearing the area of hazardous material. In those instances, city workers could also offer safer outdoor areas on public property.
Once a person is officially removed from an encampment, the bill would require the city to catalogue that person’s belonging and and store them for at least 90 days. Violations of the law by the city would result in a $250 fine paid towards the affected person.
O’Brien’s bill would also establish an 11-member panel to advise officials on encampment removals.
At-large City Council member Tim Burgess has strongly denounced the bill, saying it would allow encampments to spread dramatically throughout the city. Critics have also pointed to Portland’s short-lived experiment with expanded urban camping. “This proposed law is not balanced and will do absolutely nothing to move people from homelessness to safe and appropriate housing. Nothing,” Burgess said.
Instead, Burgess is backing the mayor’s homeless plan released in September. Based on the findings of two consultant reports, Murray’s Pathways Home plan calls for dramatically shifting how the city spends some $50 million in annual homeless prevention funding to a so-called “housing first” strategy.
Along with a complex set of efficiencies to be made in the city’s Human Services Department, the plan aims to have all unsheltered people in Seattle sheltered by 2017.