Morning Fizz

Council to Amend Homeless Encampment Bill by Defining More Spots as "Unsuitable"

Philosophical debate over bill itself dogs discussion.

By Josh Feit September 29, 2016

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The city council’s human services committee met yesterday to outline some “substantive changes” to the so-called ACLU bill that was proposed several weeks ago.  The bill, by putting stricter timing and outreach prerequisites on the city,  would curtail the city’s ability to sweep unauthorized homeless encampments. Confronted with thousands of emails from constituents and outright opposition to the bill from the mayor’s office over the charge that the legislation would create a de facto right for homeless people to camp anywhere in the city, the proposed changes, supported by the council's progressive bloc, attempt to clarify public places that are “unsuitable” for camping.

The new language explicitly says people cannot camp on school property, at active areas in parks, on sidewalks in front of homes or businesses, nor on sidewalks in business districts under the current no sit/lie law. It also exempts land owned by other institutions—the U.W. and the Port of Seattle, for example—from complying with the city’s ultimate checklist for deeming sites that are suitable. Committee chair Sally Bagshaw noted that those other institutions could certainly allow encampments on their property if they wanted to.

The restrictions at city parks pertain to active, maintained spaces, but unmanaged greenspaces at edges of parks—Lower Woodland by Greenlake Park and the unrestored parts of Cheasty were specifically named—“might not be unsuitable” according to the legislative staffer who briefed council yesterday.

The discussion prompted a philosophical debate with council member Tim Burgess on one side and everyone else—committee chair Sally Bagshaw, Lisa Herbold, Rob Johnson, and Mike O’Brien—on the other. Burgess argued that the whole premise, allowing people to camp in unauthorized spots in the first place, was counterproductive. “I wish we were spending our time and resources on taking action that would actually fix the problem and actually move people out of living on the streets and into permanent homes.”

Both Bagshaw and O’Brien challenged Burgess’s line of thinking. Bagshaw specifically explained that while she agreed that the long term solution in the mayor’s recent “Pathways Home” report to prioritize rapid rehousing was the end goal, the current legislation was a necessary stop gap. (She called it a “gap period” of about two years until the city could ramp up on the Pathways Home proposal to prioritize permanent housing.)  “While we don’t want people outside, the reality is that people are,” Bagshaw said. “These are people, these aren’t throwaways.” There are about 3,000 unsheltered homeless people in Seattle.

Screen shot 2016 09 29 at 9.05.28 am xucc7p

O’Brien framed his response to Burgess the same way.  He said he also wanted to focus on the long term solutions, but he went on: “The reason I’m invested in this right now is because we have a current situation that is not working.” Pushing back on Burgess’s appeal to efficient use of dollars, O’Brien continued, “the current approach is failing the city in that we’re spending a bunch of resources moving folks from Point A to Point B and then from Point B to Point C and from Point C back to Point A…which is destabilizing the people out there.”

Council member Johnson, circling back to the proposed changes, went one further and challenged Burgess’s larger political frame. Burgess, noting "the literally thousands of emails” coming into council, had warned his colleagues: “I don’t think the people of Seattle are ready for this approach, and the danger is it will undermine some of core support we need [to pursue] long term solutions.”

But, Johnson disputed the persuasiveness of the emails, maintaining that if people actually knew what the council was up to, there would be more support. “A lot of the mass communications that I’m getting council member Burgess, are from people who just have misinformation," Johnson said.  "We’ve said it enough times today, and I’ll say it again: The most common questions I’m getting in my office are…are we going to allow people to camp in parks or playfields? Are we going to let folks camp at Bryant Elementary? And the answer to those questions is very clearly no.”

Johnson went on to document the compassion for the homeless in his district, relaying an anecdote about a neighbor who asked the police not to press charges against a homeless man who had broken into the man's home to do his laundry. Johnson reported: "He said, 'I don't want to press charges because there's nowhere else for him to go in the city.'"

Erica C. Barnett has a report on yesterday's meeting and highlights one of the upcoming sticking points that the council also flagged at yesterday's hearing: Neighborhood resistance to allowing the council to default (by defining unsuitable places) deem specific neighborhood spots as suitable.

She also has a post mortem on the mayor's competing task force on this issue. Her verdict. Fail.

Two key quotes from Barnett's piece:

Former city council member Sally Clark, who chaired the task force, said its mission got muddied “the moment that the task force was announced, because pretty much in the same moment, the legislation was proposed at council to change the basis of the protocols that the city uses for intervening in situations where people are living outside.” The charge of the task force, Clark says, “made lot of sense in the weeks before, but then we were like, ‘Which protocols are we supposed to be looking at? The ones in this legislation, or existing protocols?'” ...

Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, who sat on the task force, says the group “definitely did not accomplish some of what it was charged with doing, which was reviewing and making recommendations on specific cleanup protocols. We never even got to that stuff."

As I editorialized last week, the council is leading on this issue.


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