Morning Fizz

Murray May Go with First Veto if Council Passes Encampment Legislation

New reports on homelessness fuel debate between mayor and council.

By Josh Feit September 9, 2016

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Based on two new reports (here and here) which describe a failed approach to dealing with homelessness, mayor Ed Murray announced a shift in tactics yesterday. The new emphasis to fight homelessness will prioritize “Rapid Rehousing” for people that are literally on the street and homeless versus—as we currently do—spend a disproportionate amount on “Transitional Housing,” which doesn’t exclusively serve people who are literally homeless, though they may be on the brink.

Rapid Rehousing programs provide permanent rooms for people. Transitional Housing programs place people in permanent housing after six months to two years of temporary housing and social service help. Rapid Rehousing costs about a third of what Transitional Housing costs, one of the reports states. One of the benefits to this approach, Barbara Poppe, the author of one of the reports told reporters yesterday, is that it would clarify who’s in the system, help the city and county prioritize who to serve first, and free up shelter space for those that are in dire need.

The reports may strengthen Mayor Murray’s POV in his current high profile argument with the council over homeless encampments; this week, defying the mayor, the council decided, in a 7-1 vote, to take up legislation drafted by the ACLU, the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, and Columbia Legal Services, that would make it difficult for the city to sweep homeless encampments. Murray’s reports provide a line of attack against the council’s (apparently) preferred position of defaulting to unauthorized encampments. As Murray’s spokesman Benton Strong told me: “Why spend money keeping people living outside?”

However, with a likely majority of the council lining up behind the ACLU/SKCCH/CLS legislation (the proposal says the city has to provide an alternate site or housing before sweeps and provide 30-day notice), Murray may have already lost the encampment fight.

I count a majority five council members—Lorena Gonzalez, Lisa Herbold, Rob Johnson (kinda), Mike O’Brien, and Kshama Sawant—firmly on the side of the ACLU/SKCCH/CLS legislation. That’s not a veto-proof number, though, (the council would need six votes) and Murray, whose pollsters are currently in the field gauging the public’s sense of the “compassion” approach to encampments versus the “public safety” approach, may take out his red pen (something he hasn’t done yet after nearly three years in office) if the council veers too far left in a way he senses misreads public sentiment. Murray prides himself on grand compromises, but he has let the council know he may veto legislation that curtails the city's ability to shut down unauthorized encampments. 

Neighborhood business districts like the Ballard Chamber of Commerce and the ID BIA oppose the legislation because they believe it’s too permissive and exacerbates public health and public safety concerns.

(Editorializing here, but I echo Public Defenders Association lawyer Lisa Daugaard, a local, longtime civil rights champion, who described the “compassion”/”public safety” split as a “false dichotomy” at this week’s council vote. Daugaard testified on Tuesday sporting a sign from both sides of the debate and said both sides wanted the same thing, noting that sweeps actually compound the public safety problem.)

Lisa Herbold, the main proponent of the ACLU/SKCCH/CLU approach, insists the council isn’t trumping the mayor (Murray had already set up a task force to come up with recommendations for amending encampment sweep protocols), but merely accelerating the legislative process.

 The mayor’s task force announcement called for forwarding legislation to the council at the end of this month, so, frankly, Herbold’s storyline—calling for legislation “mid-month”—seems like semantics.

Council member Sally Bagshaw, who voted on Tuesday to take up the council alternative (though not necessarily as a 100 percent endorsement), is the chair of the council human services committee which will vet the ACLU/SKCCH/CLS legislation. She's playing it cool. "I helped select people," she said about Murray's task force, "and am listening with bated breath for their recommendations."

Murray's top department directors (though, not Murray himself, oddly...there's still that poll out there, I guess?) signed a stern letter objecting to the ACLU/SKCCH/CLU proposal arguing that that it would make it too difficult to remove homeless campers from unsafe or unsuitable public sites. SDOT Director Scott Kubly, one of the directors who signed the letter, doubled down on his objections telling me a story about a woman who was run over and killed while sleeping illegally in a driveway along Denny Way.

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