Homeless encampment legislation introduced

This afternoon the City Council introduced a draft ordinance that would codify the rules the City must follow when removing unsanctioned homeless encampments. The bill was referred to the Human Services and Public Health Committee for further consideration.

As I described in a post earlier today, the bill is a slightly modified version of a proposal from ACLU, Columbia Legal Group, and other homeless advocates that was announced last month. The changes in the bill introduced today are minor:

  • The threshold for when the City will investigate a clean-up request was changed from “three or more separate requests” to “if adequate information is provided that there may be a legitimate concern about health and/or safety.”
  • The requirement for housing to be made available was changed from “30 days before the removal” to “at the time of the removal.”
  • When an encampment that creates a hazardous condition is removed on an expedited schedule, the alternative space that the City must provide must be owned or controlled by the city.

I’ve noted before that it’s a bit eyebrow-raising when a special interest is allowed to write legislation that is submitted on their behalf largely unchanged, as it was done here. Certainly the “optics” are bad when elected officials seem to be doing the bidding of specific advocacy groups.

This bill was introduced jointly by Council members O’Brien, Herbold, Johnson and Sawant. Since it was a last-minute addition to the Introduction and Referral Calendar it requires a separate vote to add it; those four, plus Council members Bagshaw, Gonzalez and Harrell, voted in favor.  The lone dissent was Council member Burgess, who commented that while he completely agrees with his colleagues that the current protocol is broken and inhumane, he didn’t feel that this was the right bill to fix the problem. (Council member Juarez was excused from the meeting today due to a family emergency)

Several Council members vented their frustration at the Mayor’s continuation of “sweeps” despite the public outcry against them and the Council’s vocal opposition throughout this year. Council member Bagshaw, who chairs the Human Services and Public Health Committee, would have preferred a different outcome today so that the task force that she and the Mayor have convened could work unimpeded, but she clearly saw that a majority of the Council wanted the bill introduced and instead brokered a compromise deal which assured that the bill would proceed through her committee — and in doing so promised that a final version would be back before the full Council by the end of the month.

Today’s vote was a jab at the Mayor for ignoring the Council’s past protests, but more importantly it was a stinging rebuke, or perhaps a vote of no confidence, for Bagshaw’s leadership of the city’s effort to craft an effective response to the homeless crisis in the city. And they have a point: there is little evidence of progress over the course of 2016, either in the city’s approach to unsanctioned encampments or in the larger effort to move people off the streets and into stable housing.

Council member Herbold was the most eloquent on that point today, noting that while earlier this year she was against a legislative approach to revising the encampment cleanup protocols, she has since flipped and now sees that as a necessary step. Further,  she observed that there is no clarity, let alone consensus, between Bagshaw and the Mayor on when legislation might appear; she pointed to the Mayor’s original announcement of the task force that said new rules would be in place by December 31, last week’s follow-up release saying that it would be by the end of September, Bagshaw’s statement earlier today that she would have legislation ready by the middle of the month, and the charter of the task force which doesn’t even specify that it should produce draft legislation. In that context, the move by Bagshaw’s colleagues to push through an ordinance against her wishes was clearly a statement of impatience with her measured approach.

Bagshaw is now caught between a rock and a hard place. She needs to drive the task force (which she doesn’t control) and today’s bill to converge on a single piece of legislation by the end of the month if she has any hope of regaining leadership over the city’s homeless response. And she needs the Mayor’s cooperation to make that happen. He, in turn, has voiced his opposition to the draft ordinance, and despite promising Bagshaw that he is willing to commit to making adequate offers of alternative shelter available before clearing an encampment (the central issue in the debate) he seems in no rush to have his hands tied by the Council.

Council member Bagshaw will also have the long-awaited Barb Poppe report on the city’s overall homeless response to deal with this week, and she will need to turn that too into a set of legislative recommendations by the end of the month before the budget process begins in October. It will be a difficult balancing act for her, since the larger strategy is the means to reduce homelessness, but the encampment “sweep” policy is the squeaky wheel that is attracting all the attention at the moment. Hopefully Bagshaw and her colleagues on the Council, in the city departments, and in the community can rise to the occasion over the next four weeks.

Update 6:00pm:  Here are statements on the vote today from Council members Gonzalez, Burgess and Bagshaw.

Update 9/7/16 2:00pm:  and O’Brien’s statement.