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.