Officials say encampment rules will help shield the City of Seattle from legal issues, and, they hope, help solve what many say is a public health and safety crisis.
In response to a wave of pushback against an initial proposal introduced by City Council member Mike O’Brien, two competing replacement bills are seeking to find wider support even as another plan from the mayor looms.
On Friday morning, the Human Services and Public Health Committee will consider new measures from O’Brien and Sally Bagshaw.
UPDATE (10:35 AM): Seeking to get out in front of growing public concern over camping protections proposed at City Council, staff from the Mayor’s office laid out Murray’s “balanced approach” to handling encampments. Murray’s executive actions were, in some ways, a rapid response to many of the issues that City Council members have been wrestling with for weeks.
Murray said encampments will be prohibited on sidewalks, and in parks, on school grounds, and other locations deemed to be “unsafe.” In most instances, the city would not sweep unauthorized encampments unless there is “a reasonable alternative place to go.” However, in some of the most serious situations (needles and tents along the Lowell Elementary path were offered as one example) the city could remove people without having to offer alternative housing or encampment locations.
To increase the number of appropriate locations, four new sanctioned encampments will be opened by releasing $1.2 million in funding. Murray’s staff said details on the locations of the encampments would be released in the coming weeks, but mostly avoided questions from Council member Bruce Harrell about how they would incorporate public input. “You don’t just force it on communities,” he said.
Homeless outreach will also be doubled, including a new Seattle Police “engagement team.” Seattle Parks and Recreation will make community center restrooms and shower facilities available to the public free-of-charge.
Another $1 million will be made available for the Seattle Human Services Department to partners with organizations to create additional indoor shelter and storage capacity. The plan also includes actions for dealing with hazardous materials.
- Starting in November, the City will provide needle pickup within 24 hours of a report, seven days a week.
- Installing at least 10 new safe sharps disposal boxes across the city to make it easier for people to safely dispose of needles.
- Increasing garbage removal services which includes better addressing garbage related to encampments
No vote is expected to take place on either measure during the 9:30 AM meeting. Prior to Murray’s announcement, council members said they would likely wait until after the budget is passed to move forward on the issue.
On Thursday, the Department of Justice gave O’Brien’s initial proposal a thumbs-up after council member’s asked for a review. The Office for Access to Justice said in a letter to the City Council that the measure was “consistent with constitutional principles” and acknowledges the human rights of homeless individuals.
At-large City Council member Tim Burgess has strongly denounced the bill, saying it would allow encampments to spread dramatically throughout the city. Instead, Burgess is backing Murray’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. Part of this will be the encampments proposal the mayor promised Thursday.
As for the competing substitute measures from O’Brien and Bagshaw that could end up overshadowed by the Murray plan, both would make a handful of similar changes:
- Limits encampment removal rules to City of Seattle actions on city owned property, not all public property within the city limits (that would exclude areas like the state-owned embankments along I-5).
- Specifies the encampment protections do not extend to vehicles.
- Adds language to request the city prioritize removals in areas that are unsafe or unsuitable.
- Adds a two-year sunset to the law.
- Reduces time city has to store property from 90 days to 60 days and authorizes delivery as a method to return belongings.
The measures differ in some significant ways as well. Bagshaw’s measure would prohibit encampments on all sidewalks and parks unless authorized by a city department head. Her measure would also require the mayor’s office to identify where encampments may locate on public space within 30 days of the ordinance going into effect.
O’Brien’s measure would not require the mayor to identify such locations and would only expressly limit encampments in the following places:
- Improved areas of parks
- Restored natural areas of parks or areas undergoing restoration
- Public sidewalks in front of houses and dwelling units
Bagshaw’s measure would allow crews to immediately clear and store belongings at “unsafe or unsuitable” encampments, while O’Brien’s measure would require one to two day notices before encampments could be removed depending on the conditions of the camps.
Current city protocol requires a 72 hours notice before each sweep.
Under O’Brien’s original bill, violations of the sweeps law by the city would result in a $250 penalty paid towards the affected person. O’Brien’s substitute drops the penalty to $50 while Bagshaw’s bill scraps the payments altogether.
City Hall has reportedly been inundated with phone calls and e-mail about the earlier proposal that would have prohibited the city from removing homeless encampments on public property unless conditions were especially “unsafe or unsuitable” The measure, initially drafted by the ACLU and introduced by O’Brien, would have also forced officials to provide alternatives to people displaced by the sweeps. In some cases, the measure would have allowed the city to move homeless camps on to suitable public property.
Even more phone calls came in after City Hall-produced maps began circulating showing where those public spaces could be although the graphics did not show areas that would be taken off the list due to “unsafe or unsuitable” conditions.
UPDATE (12:45 PM): It was an unusual day for City Council members O’Brien and Kshama Sawant, who found themselves on the receiving end of relentless booing as they attempted to defend O’Brien’s legislation that would permit homeless encampments along some sidewalks and green space.
Much of the public ire had been stoked by the maps released last week by Seattle parks and transportation departments. In a heated exchange, O’Brien accused the Mayor’s representatives of spreading misinformation with the maps and not working in good faith with council members. “I need to understand who released this and why,” he said.
Murray’s counsel Ian Warner did not address where the maps came from and said he did not know if the maps were an accurate portrayal of O’Brien’s plan, but said the Mayor was committed to representing the concerns of residents who oppose the bill.
Attendees of the meeting held competing signs staking out their positions, like “housing not camping” and “protect our neighbors.” During public comments, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant called on the City Council to move towards a “zero tolerance” policy for outdoor camping. Many other who opposed O’Brien’s measure said they wanted the City Council for focus on a housing first approach like the one laid out by Murray’s Pathways Home plan.
A Magnolia mother, who appeared with her two children, said she supported O’Brien’s bill and that she was deeply troubled by a anti-encampment protest planned in a park by her neighbors.
O’Brien said he continued to stand behind his efforts to help stabilize people and protect their belongings while the city works to create permanent housing. “They have a human right and a constitutional right to sleep somewhere,” he said.