Monday morning in their weekly briefing, the Council members vented their frustrations at trying to move forward the pending ordinance rewriting the city’s policy and protocols for unsanctioned homeless encampments. At the same time, they also gave hints as to where they are finding common ground.
It’s clear they all feel enormous pressure from activists and residents whose strong feelings cover the spectrum of opinions. But the Council members are also frustrated that many of the people contacting them are either misinformed or have old information on a quickly-evolving situation. Council member Bagshaw began the discussion by noting that the bill is substantially changed now from the originally-introduced version, and will likely change more when it is taken up again on Friday in her committee. Much of the blame for public misunderstanding, however, is on the Council’s own shoulders as they have largely been working behind closed doors.
Many people have been pointing to Portland’s recent attempt to loosen its restrictions on unsanctioned encampments, with reportedly disastrous results. Both Bagshaw and Council member O’Brien were careful in yesterday’s conversation to draw a clear distinction between their bill and what Portland did. O’Brien explained that Portland’s ordinance was time-based: it allowed camping anywhere, but only for certain hours of the day (i.e. at night). That turned out to be unworkable. Instead, Seattle’s bill is geographically based and restricts encampments by geography. To that end, Bagshaw made it clear that they don’t want people camping wherever they want to camp, as that would cause a free-for-all. So the bill will prohibit camping in some places, such as schools, sidewalks, and maintained areas of parks. A leaked draft has a more comprehensive list of prohibited areas, though that is subject to change until the Council passes it into law.
Bagshaw also articulated the problem well: there are some in Seattle who believe that people should be able to be wherever they want to be on public property, and others who don’t want homeless people anywhere on public property. But neither option is acceptable, so they need to find a middle ground that gives homeless people a place to be where they aren’t harassed while also respecting the rights of neighbors.
Council President Harrell correctly observed that there are really two issues being debated:
- where to allow encampments;
- how to remove ones that are in unsafe or unsuitable locations.
Council members Herbold and Johnson have been meeting with stakeholders on the latter issue, and concluded that not only do city departments feel that they don’t have the resources to comply with the directives on clearing encampments, but they are confused about exactly what the policy is. So it sounds like they will welcome a new ordinance that provides much-needed clarity, but they also need the Council to properly fund it.
Council member Burgess was present but unexpectedly quiet through the conversation, though he made his feelings known on the bill last week (spoiler: he hates it). Perhaps he’s feeling the need to look open-minded, or perhaps he has found some new optimism that the final bill will be more to his liking and has adopted a “wait and see” approach. Or perhaps he feels that he’s made his case and simply has nothing further to add.
Council member Sawant was also unusually quiet, on a topic where she is typically the most vocal advocate for stopping “sweeps” and giving homeless people broad rights to stay on public property. Compromise is not her strong suit, and she may believe that she is caught between her fellow Council members who will demand restrictions, and the most vocal of her supporters who want maximum freedom for the homeless.
While the Council members are clawing their way towards consensus on some issues, other problems with the bill are still prominent. Among them: the bill would enforce at least a 24-hour delay (and perhaps longer) before removing all encampments — even one discovered in the middle of a park playground or on the sidewalk in front of a residence. Also, by excluding public schools from the definition of “public space,” it fails to specify any rules at all for removal of an unsanctioned encampment on school grounds — though since public schools are under the jurisdiction of the Seattle School District, public schools might still be swept up in the bill’s requirement that City staff may only assist other “entities” to clear encampments if they agree to follow the same protocol as the City uses on its own land.
The Council members recognize that they still have an enormous amount of work to do as they work this through, but also that the environment in which they are attempting to make law is once again turning toxic. Harrell bluntly observed that they have a PR problem, as local media and neighborhood blogs rail against the effort (often with outdated information), and activists for the homeless push harder for more radical solutions. And all of the Council members agree that none of this effort actually helps to solve the homelessness problem or to get anyone off the streets and into housing. Nonetheless, at this point it is still looking likely that there will be a bill of some sort; the chance of it getting killed entirely is low.
Tune in again on Friday, when we find out whether the Council can find its middle ground solution, and whether any of the stakeholders will find it acceptable.