Key Public Testimony Cuts Through Politics of Homelessness Crisis
There were three standout winners at today's raucous city council hearing where the council, led by council members Lisa Herbold, Rob Johnson, Mike O'Brien, and Kshama Sawant, introduced the "ACLU Legislation" to make it more difficult for the city to do sweeps of homeless encampments. (I say raucous because activists against homeless sweeps shouted down council president Bruce Harrell...who actually voted for the lefty legislation.)
Quickly, by way of background: the legislation—which optically challenges the mayor, who has set up his own task force to revisit protocols for addressing unauthorized encampments—sets a longer warning period for sweeping encampments (30 days versus the current 72 hours) and puts stricter prerequisites on the city (they have to provide a place for the homeless campers to go.)
Opponents of the legislation believe the rules will make it too hard to remove encampments—and in the process, jeopardize public health and safety.
Proponents of the new council legislation believe the current sweep policies are inhumane and are also counterproductive. We shouldn’t be backing homeless people into a corner by chasing them all over the city, they say.
All the other council members, except Tim Burgess, who complained that the legislation "established a new right to camp in the city," supported co-sponsor O'Brien's motion to take the bill up in committee next week. It was, if not an explicit second of the ACLU policy recommendation, at least a way to get moving on new protocols.
The legislation will go to human services chair Sally Bagshaw’s committee next week; Bagshaw helped set up the mayor’s encampment protocols task force, but enthusiastically supported taking up the seemingly alternative legislation. For what it’s worth: the (kinda) Young Turks who were pushing the bill—you gotta love that a political square like Johnson was intentionally using the word “sweeps”—say their goal isn’t to upend Mayor Murray’s process. They say the want to sync up Murray's task force with with a legislative purpose.
We’re “not leapfrogging,” the mayor, Herbold responded to my own characterization, we’re “expressing intent to legislate.”
Anyway: Enough background.
On to today’s winners, who were mostly a couple of eloquent public speakers.
First: Longtime public defender Lisa Daugaard held up both sides’ placards at the hearing when she testified herself; the opponents’ signs said “Neighborhood Health Safety” and the proponents side said “Sweep Trash Not People.”
Daugaard was continuing to make a point she’s been making since the council officially started grappling with the homelessness crisis earlier this year: The supposedly opposing POVs are not mutually exclusive—this is “a false dichotomy” she said, noting that both sides' concerns go hand in hand. In fact, she eloquently pointed out: Sweeping homeless people from spot to spot actually exacerbates public safety issues.
Second: Sonny Nguyen, an activist with API Food Fight Club—a group of young Asian and Pacific American progressive leaders— said Asians “would no longer be the model minority” and added that he wasn’t going to stand by and let Asian Americans be used and pitted against other marginalized groups, namely the homeless.
Nguyen was responding to the strong showing from the establishment ID community that packed the hearing, cheered council member Tim Burgess’s dissenting vote against the Herbold/Johnson/O’Brien/Sawant measure, and testified that the encampments were particularly threatening to elderly residents in the ID. Nguyen accused the mayor's office of holding an exclusive organizing meeting with ID business interests in advance of today's hearing that excluded some members of the ID community.
Nguyen, noting that the last time he was at city hall was when the Asian community in the ID was being pitted against East African immigrants during the mayor’s attempt to shut down East African hookah lounges, said he didn’t think the sweep policy got at the root cause of homelessness.
Finally, you’ve got to give props to beleaguered council president Bruce Harrell who oversaw a super rowdy hearing today as activists shouted him down and reprimanded the council for locking people out of chambers and not letting people speak.
It’s been a raucous year for council testimony throughout Harrell’s recent tenure as council president (he took over in January), and I’ve noticed that he continually fails to to take the bait, remaining solicitous and kinda gracious actually, patiently explaining the rules, his role, security’s role about overcrowding while continually trying to give people the chance to speak.
Harrell has not given activists—perhaps looking to demonize him as some sort of establishment council president—an extraneous gotcha process issue. He has been flexible and amenable to lengthy public comment—and after finally dismissing some extra rowdy folks today, for example, he extended the meeting after the first comment period and the general business were over for add on public testimony afterward.