Homeless advocates propose new ordinance on homeless encampment sweeps

Filed under “well that didn’t take long…”

This morning I posted a piece on the Council’s new strategy of defining a “cause of action” for people suing the city in order to drive police accountability. At the end of the article I suggested that the Council might see fit to use the same approach to stop homeless sweeps.

This afternoon, five groups who advocate for the homeless proposed exactly that — and much more.

Columbia Legal Services, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, ACLU of Washington, the Seattle Community Law Center, and the Public Defender Association published an “open letter” to the Mayor and City Council members (hat tip to Erica Barnett). In their letter they put forth a draft ordinance that does several things:

  • It requires the city to provide garbage, sanitation and “harm reduction services” upon request at any unsanctioned homeless encampment where more than five people reside;
  • It sets strict requirements that must be met before an unsanctioned encampment may be removed:
    • “adequate and accessible housing” must be available an offered at least 30 days before the cleanup to all affected persons;
    • outreach must be performed over a period of at least 30 days before the cleanup;
    • written notice must be posted at least 30 days in advance in a conspicuous location at the encampment site;
  • For individuals who accept the offer of housing, the city must transport free of charge all of their personal property to the location of the housing;
  • For individuals absent when the cleanup occurs, the city must safeguard all of their personal property, including photographing and cataloguing it electronically in a form that is searchable on the Internet or by calling a city agent. It must store it in a location accessible by public transportation that is open for business beyond normal working hours, not require a photo ID to claim personal property, and post written notice at the cleanup site as to where the property can be retrieved (as well as returning to the site within 24 hours of the cleanup to inform anyone there where to retrieve their items). After 90 days, the city can dispose of unclaimed items.
  • An encampment or vehicle being used as a residence that is either in an unsafe location or is creating a hazard may be removed by the city under an accelerated schedule; the city only needs to post notice 48 hours in advance, though it needs to provide garbage, sanitation and harm reduction services for at least 72 hours before the removal. It must also provide outreach to the residents and give them 72 hours for a meaningful opportunity to “cure” the hazard or unsafe condition. The city may not remove the encampment or vehicle if the hazard or unsafe condition is cured. And it must provide an alternative location for the residents to move to, and apply all the same rules to safeguarding and storing personal property.
  • An 11-member Implementation and Advisory Committee will be established to provide advice to the city on implementation of the legislation. The Mayor will nominate one member, each of the nine Council members will nominate one, and the Council will collectively nominate one. All committee members must have experience delivering services to the homeless.
  • Finally, it establishes a cause of action for damages if the city violates the rules, with a penalty of $250 per affected individual in addition to the cost of any actual damages incurred.

These new rules are intended to replace the Multi-Department Administrative Rule (MDAR) which has guided homeless encampment cleanup and removal for several years.

This comes on the heels of the Mayor’s announcement last week of the initial members of the task force that he and Council member Sally Bagshaw are establishing to review cleanup procedures, as well as his announcement yesterday of his new Director of Homelessness, George Scarola. So now there are dueling proposals for advisory councils, with very different representation on the two.

Homeless advocate and Real Change founder Tim Harris told The Stranger that five unnamed members of the City Council support today’s proposed legislation, though it would take six to overcome the inevitable Mayoral veto. With the Council in recess through Labor Day, we will likely need to wait a couple of weeks for further clarification on where they stand.

Nevertheless, after a week of what seemed like progress on building a consensus approach to the homeless response, this proposal — if it indeed has Council backing — throws a major wrench in the works. Bagshaw, the visible leader on the Council for all things related to the homeless crisis, has been trying to build bridges with the Mayor and other city departments, with the plan for the Navigation Center and the new task force; for her to back away from that in favor of this proposal, particularly at a time when the relationship between the Mayor and the Council is strained, would set back the homeless response by months. And the timing couldn’t be worse, since noted consultant Barb Poppe is due to deliver her long-awaited recommendations on the city’s homeless response in early September, and the biennial budget process kicks off shortly.

Perhaps the cleanest path forward would be for the Council to re-frame the proposal as “useful input” and cherry-pick some parts. They could use the proposal’s criteria for members of the advisory board to improve the Mayor’s and Bagshaw’s task force membership, and then pass the bulk of the text to the task force as suggestions to consider for rewriting the MDAR. That will make the advocacy groups unhappy, as they have clearly run out of patience with the Mayor’s intransigence on reforming sweeps. But it would allow the Council to wriggle out of their uncomfortable position between the advocates and the Mayor, giving both sides part of what they want.

The Mayor has shown that he is more than willing to ignore the Council and enacted law (most recently with the Uber unionization ordinance) when it serves his purposes. The advocacy groups, for their part, will rob the task force of crucial legitimacy (and infuriate the Mayor) if they choose not to participate. This leaves Bagshaw in the position of chief shuttle diplomat: if she can’t find common ground between the executive branch and the homeless advocates, then she has no hope of seeing an effective response to the homeless crisis enacted into law, budgeted for, and implemented. I hope she is enjoying her vacation, because she has a daunting task when she returns to the office.