City Hall

Effort to Limit City's Support for Tent Cities to Churches Fails

By Josh Feit March 28, 2012

City Council member Tim Burgess failed to pass a proposed amendment to the city's comprehensive plan this morning saying that the city supports homeless encampments only at religious institutions. The proposal, which Burgess withdrew, would have effectively gutted a separate proposal by council member Nick Licata supporting "safe and healthy transitional encampments to allow temporary shelter for those who are homeless."

The point of Licata's original amendment was to add a focus on temporary shelter to the city's strategy for addressing homelessness to the city's comp plan by, in effect, officially recognizing that temporary encampments, like the ones operated by the homeless advocacy group SHARE/WHEEL, exist. Like the rest of the comp plan, Licata amendment is, as council members noted this morning, merely a statement of policy guidance (both Burgess and staffers repeatedly called it "aspirational").

Encampments are already allowed under temporary land use permits, and Mayor Mike McGinn plans to send down legislation in the coming weeks that would set official standards for non-religious institutions to host encampments. The legislation would replace a consent decree that recently expired setting standards for tent encampments on religious and non-religious facilities. Without the consent decree, encampments are not allowed at private, nonreligious institutions (separate legislation makes them legal at religious institutions.)

At this morning's land-use committee meeting, Burgess said he was merely trying to "maintain the status quo" instead of making policy "on an ad hoc basis" through the comp plan."This section, as proposed by Council Member Licata, reflects a significant change in what our policies have been so far in that it would encourage ... the development of many more encampments in our city, and I think we should be discussing that in a much more thorough and complete way," Burgess said. "It's not consistent with the Ten-Year Plan [to end homelessness] that we have adopted."

However, as Licata noted after this morning's meeting, council members and the mayor do use the comp plan for guidance; if the plan says encampments should only be at churches, future councils will take that into account.

"What it does is actually recognize that there are temporary encampments," Licata said. "I think Burgess wanted to say, okay, if they exist, they can exist only at religious institutions. ... Legally, it doesn't have that effect. but it certainly would frame the discussion in a way that would push back the argument that encampments should exist outside religious institutions.

"It's political."

In a letter to Burgess this morning, McGinn expressed his own concerns about limiting encampments to religious institutions.

"Now that the consent decree [allowing encampments] has expired, private entities, such as the one that sued the city ten years ago, do not have a way to host an encampment like those operated by SHARE/WHEEL," McGinn wrote. "I am concerned that your proposed amendment... would preclude legislation intending to address those issues."

We have calls out to Burgess and Bill Block, the director of the King County Committee to End Homelessness, for their takes on the amendment.
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