Homeless encampment bill starts to take shape

This afternoon the Human Services and Public Health Committee took up the pending ordinance rewriting the city’s protocols on removing homeless encampments. The effort is running behind schedule, but the key issues are coming into focus.

When Council member O’Brien introduced the ordinance, which was largely authored by the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services, Council member Bagshaw struck a deal with him that would send the bill through her committee in return for her promise that a final version would come up for adoption by the full Council by the end of September.

Bagshaw admitted today that they would miss that deadline; they need more time to work through the issues. Following up on last week’s meeting, today’s discussion focused on four particular issues; three were dispatched very quickly and one continued to be troublesome.

The first issue was the question of what properties the new policy will apply to. The short answer is “city owned property within city limits.” The long answer is a list of the places it doesn’t apply:

  • schools (i.e. property owned by the Seattle School District);
  • property owned by the State of Washington or King County;
  • private property;
  • campuses of public colleges and universities;
  • Port of Seattle property;
  • public development authorities’ property such as Pike Place Market.

The bill would limit the city’s ability to participate in encampment-removal operations on non-city public property that didn’t conform to the protocol in the bill, though the Mayor would have the power to negotiate agreements with other public entities to govern how the city might participate in a manner consistent with the new protocol.

A second issue was whether the policy would apply to vehicles being used as residences. The Council reiterated the same conclusion it reached last time: that should be outside the scope of this bill, but they should articulate their intent to address that separately.

A third issue was whether there should be a “sunset” provision on the ordinance. It was quickly agreed that it should terminate two years after its effective date. It’s hoped that will be enough time for the Pathways Home plan to ramp up.

The big, sticky issue is how to define “unsuitable” locations for encampments. The original bill defines “unsuitable” as:

a location that has a specific public use that is substantially impeded as a result of an outdoor living space or vehicle used as a residence in that location and where the public lacks alternative means to accomplish the specific use.

It would then be up to the Department of Neighborhoods to do the rulemaking to determine which areas as unsuitable.  But the Council members, echoing feedback they have heard from residents, wanted to be more explicit on several types of property that are unsuitable, including:

  • Improved areas of city parks;
  • Restored natural areas of city parks and areas undergoing restoration;
  • Areas of right-of-way in front of homes and businesses
  • Areas downtown and in Commercial zones to which the limitations of the city’s “sit and lie” ordinance already apply.

The first concern was how “bullet-proof” these definitions were. A case in point was Lower Woodland Park, which has playfields, barbeque pit areas, and natural woodlands. It was argued that the playfields and other day-camping areas would be unsuitable but the natural woodlands area would probably not make the list because they are not maintained — even though some it abuts the motocross track area next to the playfields. Council member Burgess, who has the most concerns about the legislation and led the pointed grilling about specific locations, wondered whether the “planting strips” between the sidewalk and the road would be “unsuitable.” Council central staff member Ketil Freeman suggested that they might not be unsuitable, but many of them could be considered “unsafe,” a separate category of sites disallowed in the ordinance.

But there is one more criterion in play for determining unsuitable areas: allowing neighborhoods to  identify key locations that are of particular importance or significance to the local community. Council President Harrell brought up Cheasty Park in his District 2 as an example of an area where the local community has spent a great deal of time and resources cleaning up and activating the site. He wants to make sure that in the process of defining “unsuitable” they don’t end up defining everything else as “suitable.” Council member Herbold took that concern one step further, arguing that just because something has not been deemed “unsuitable” doesn’t mean it should be advertised as a place people should move to.

Council member O’Brien, on the other hand, worries that  residents and business owners will always think of the space right next to their property as “unsuitable,” and so neighborhoods will collectively over-restrict space. He pointed out that there are 3000 people living unsheltered in Seattle, and if at the end of this exercise there aren’t enough “not unsuitable” places left for them to reside in the short term, then the ordinance hasn’t solved the basic problem it was intended to address. O’Brien believes that it’s not enough for neighborhoods to get together and pick some “unsuitable” places; they will also need to come together as communities, recognize their responsibility to the homeless, and pick some places where it will be ok for homeless people to set up encampments. He also pointed out that there will need to be geographic spread: homeless people often settle in an area for a reason, such as access to services or because of a friend or other supportive person close by, and if that person is living someone unsuitable it will be important to move him somewhere nearby to preserve those ties.

That tied in the related conversation of how the Department of Neighborhoods will conduct its rulemaking process. Council member Herbold had strong opinions on the need for the ordinance to specify the timeline for rulemaking so that it happens fast, as well as to give prescriptive guidance on which stakeholders from the community should be invited to provide input. Council member Johnson agreed, and emphasized that it might have budget implications for the Department of Neighborhoods that need to be addressed in the budget process that is now underway.

It wasn’t Bagshaw’s intent to vote on specific amendments today, but it was still a useful conversation for reaching consensus on some points — and identifying where there is still work to be done. Expect at least one more special meeting to be scheduled for Bagshaw’s committee, likely to formally consider amendments to the bill.

If you suffer from insomnia, here’s a draft version of the ordinance that attempts to incorporate the consensus feedback from the Council on the issues raised to date.

The one other area where there is vocal and broad consensus among the Council members is that the city would be far better off focusing its time and energy on implementing the Pathways Home plan to solve the homeless crisis rather than getting bogged down on how to manage unsanctioned encampments. But as Bagshaw pointed out, this is the “gap” for the next 18 months while Pathways Home spins up, and as a city we have no choice but to deal with this issue — hopefully in a humane and compassionate manner.


  1. A key issue that is not addressed is the question of what is Seattle’s share of this problem? We need to have the flexibility to try innovative responses at the municipal level, but homelessness is properly a national issue that involves a highly mobile population. People will move to wherever they are tolerated and where they can get the best deal. (Note that there are no homeless encampments on Yarrow Point.) It makes sense to provide for tiny houses, or camping spaces, or permanent dwellings for our proportional share of this nation-wide issue, but we also need to define an upper limit and say “No” to those whose presence exceeds our limit.

    1. Actually, it’s a myth that the homeless population is highly mobile, and that they are attracted to areas that have services. The research shows that the vast majority of Seattle’s homeless population (80-85%) became homeless in Seattle. The next largest share is from the greater King County area, and very few became homeless elsewhere and then travelled to Seattle. The statistics are basically the same for every major city in the US, and yet there are people in every one of those cities who believe that homeless people are moving there because of the availability of services.

      There are another 1500 homeless people in King County outside of Seattle, and the city is coordinating with the county to think holistically about the whole homeless population rather than make an arbitrary distinction at the city’s border.

      So yes, it’s a nationwide problem and some of the causes are national issues, but Seattle’s homeless problem wasn’t imported — it was created here. It’s not productive or accurate to think about Seattle’s “proportionate share” because some of the issues, like housing costs, are more severe here than in other places. And the whole notion that you can define a limit and simply say “no” to more homeless people is not grounded in reality.

      1. Please cite your research. What you are saying about mobility does not square with my experience. In either case, there needs to be a defined objective beyond eliminating homelessness no matter how many people show up or where there’re from. How many tents or tiny houses on how many acres?

        1. I slightly misquoted the stats — my apologies, I was writing from memory while in transit home from California and didn’t have access to documentation. Here’s the Seattle Times coverage — I have listened to the experts testify on this myself, and have read the reports, and will try to dig them up too. http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/king-countys-homeless-are-overwhelmingly-from-here-service-providers-say/

          But the main gist is the same: the vast majority of homeless people are locals.

  2. The study and its statistics are not accurate. It is capturing data only on people who ask for services — and they admit that 30% who seek services do not answer the question of where they are from. Therefore the study is missing a vast number of people who do not seek out services or do not answer their question. The people in tents and RV’s – have they requested services? Would they be in a shelter if they had? If they haven’t asked for help, then they aren’t being counted as ‘from Seattle’. My sense is that tent campers and RV residents choose to live off the grid and are taking advantage of Seattle’s culture of tolerance. How about surveying those living in their RV’s or in tents? That is a different data set, and this group is the most objectionable with their public camping, hazardous waste, illicit activities, etc. Many concerned residents – who rarely get involved in CC matters – are providing their input to the City Council that the ordinance under consideration, as-amended, is terrible for residents. The City Council is ignoring voters, except Tim Burgess, who is the only sane one among them.

  3. I also don’t agree with the population theories above, that most are Seattlites to begin with. I do talk with them and try to help by getting them a meal, and the vast majority I speak to (since I am not a person in authority, maybe they feel more free to tell me where they are from) are NOT from this state. I have a problem with this new proposal – especially of letting them camp in our parks and on our sidewalks! That is just crazy. We already know that many of our homeless refuse to accept help, IMHO if they refuse, then that is when we give them a ticket back to their respective states. I know, that is extreme, but I’m becoming increasingly worried about the citizens of this state/city being put behind the folks that do not want help, but then do not keep their campsites clean (as best they can), or even resort to petty crime…that’s a different topic all together. To open up our common areas to such an extreme proposal, that can make those areas for our children and our own enjoyment, no longer viable. I don’t want to pay taxes that in no way give me SOME benefit! I do not agree with this proposal at all…we can’t afford to be the State for the Homeless.

    1. They aren’t “population theories”. It’s information collected and conveyed by experts who work with the homeless here and in other cities around the country, and they see the same thing everywhere. “Where are you from” and “where did you become homeless” are different questions. Seattle is in an economic boom and people move here for lots of reasons. For some of them, things don’t pan out and they end up homeless. But that doesn’t equate to moving here after you become homeless because you heard that Seattle has great services for the homeless (hint: it doesn’t, and the homeless people know that). They’re homeless; they’re not stupid, and they’re not ignorant.

      The “homeless people are refusing help” thing is also blown out of proportion. What’s mostly going on out there is that what you or I might call “help” is not actually helpful to the homeless. Almost all of the shelters in the city only operate from 7pm to 6am, and then they kick you right back out on the street again. But for that privilege, you have to give up your possessions, your pets, and staying together with your unmarried partner — often the only things that give these folks any remaining sense of order and dignity in their lives. Plus most shelters won’t take you if you have a substance abuse or mental health issue. It should be no surprise that they refuse this so-called “help” as it is far more disruptive to their lives than living in a tent under a highway. There is an effort underway to reform the shelter programs so that they are 24-hour and accept everyone along with their possessions, pets and partners. When we get to that point, there will be a much stronger case to be made for frowning upon those who refuse help. But that will take over a year to roll out at any substantial scale. Yes, there are some people who refuse all offers that would genuinely be helpful to them, but mostly that is not what is going on out there.

      In the meantime, we are stuck with this debate about what to do with unsanctioned encampments, a choice between two inhumane and unacceptable options. The City Council is still wrestling with it — I found out this afternoon that they expect to put out a new draft on Tuesday and debate it in committee next Friday. They have definitely heard all the feedback from both sides and are considering all of it. A recent draft quietly being circulated says that among the “unsuitable” locations are sidewalks in front of residences and improved areas of public parks. And there is already a city ordinance that prohibits sitting or lying on public sidewalks in the downtown core and other urban areas of the city during the day. As near as I can tell, that has widespread support. I don’t think anyone knows at this point what the final legislation will look like. The one thing I can assure you, though, is that no one will be happy with the final version of the legislation.

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