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.