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The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, one of the city’s leading local homeless advocacy groups, was notably absent from the list of groups represented on mayor Ed Murray’s recently announced task force to address homeless encampments; the mayor’s task force is “charged with giving recommendations on improving the city’s response to unsanctioned encampments,” according to the mayor’s office.

Yesterday, in an end-run around the mayor and along with Real Change director Tim Harris, the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services (two progressive legal groups who have been critical of the city’s controversial policy of sweeping homeless encampments), SKCCH sent an open letter to the mayor and city council outlining a proposed ordinance they want the council to pass governing how the city deals with unsanctioned homeless sites.

(A recent in-depth Seattle Times story revealed how the haphazard sweeps were upending people’s lives, separating them from their belongings, and struggling to connect the homeless with social services.)

The council has certainly been critical of Murray’s current policy of sweeping homeless encampments, which has often simply nudged homeless people from makeshift spot to makeshift spot. But earlier this summer, the mayor and the council did agree on a set of protocols to remove homeless campers from “the Jungle,” the de facto homeless encampment under I-5 in Beacon Hill. That protocol included three key guidelines: They must provide trash bags and needle containers to campers; the people at the encampment will be offered shelter and services; and the council would be given prior notice before the mayor’s office forcibly removes a camper that refused to leave.

Overall, currently, the city must provide 72-hour notice to people in the encampments before removing them and must also offer social services.

The SKCCH/ACLU/Columbia Legal Services proposal, however, says the city must do more. It says the city must provide a 30-day waiting period before doing a sweep and must make efforts in that time to connect campers with social services and housing (not just one-night cots or floors.) The city must also make a more serious effort to keep people from getting separated from their belongings.

Murray’s task force, being co-chaired by former Seattle City Council member Sally Clark (now the director of community relations at the University of Washington) and David Moseley, the former Washington State Ferries director, does include well-respected homeless advocacy groups such as  the Downtown Emergency Services Center and All Home, who recently revised their mission of simply supporting housing to a more coordinated approach of aligning a housing approach with targeted services. Murray's task force also includes business groups such as the Ballard Chamber of Commerce. Murray’s office reports that the ACLU and Columbia Legal services declined to join.

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Image: Mike Kane

As for SKCCH, Murray spokesman Benton Strong made it sound like the group was still welcome to join. “It [the task force] isn’t completely full yet, so that’s not a lock,” Strong told me. “[SKCCH] and our office have been trying to connect for a bit.”

However, Alison Eisinger, head of SKCCH, seemed perplexed by that explanation when I asked her about it.

Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw, the chair of the council’s human services and public health committee—and a member of the mayor’s new task force—signaled that she mostly supported SKCCH’s recommendation.

 She emailed PubliCola to say:

 I have been working closely with ACLU and SKCCH and mayor's office et al to do multiple things simultaneously : 1) find safe places for people to be BEFORE removing them from an unsafe site, 2) providing Sani-cans [toilets] and garbage/recycling containers where people are located, 3) increasing supply of 24/7 shelters where people have lockers and access to services (I am working closely with church council for immediately reopening 200 beds) and 4) increasing supply of stable housing county wide.

Housing First is the goal. The mayor and I are coordinating a stakeholder group to hammer out these policies with legislation to be passed before budget. Sweeps are making things worse for people involved and we must change the approach. I am certain that I have the votes to pass a slightly modified version (clarifying responsibilities) of SKCCH legislation and want input from stakeholders.

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