City Council continues to struggle with homeless encampment rules

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.


  1. “…as local media and neighborhood blogs rail against the effort (often with outdated information)…”

    i think this is directly related to this:

    “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.”

    the council can’t live in a bubble and not talk to the public. and i’m not saying that it needs to be in person or via meetings. we live in this wonderful futuristic world where council members can have a conversation online via a blog or facebook or twitter. start sharing with the community and then maybe there wouldn’t be this misinformation.

    i say this as a capitol hill resident, i don’t feel sawant does much to communicate with us her ideas and solicit feedback. most of my knowledge of what’s going on in the city does indeed come from sources such as: capitol hill seattle blog, seattle times, the stranger and, most recently, this blog.

    if the council wants an engaged citizenry, and not a rabid mob, they need to figure out a way to: 1) keep the public better informed and 2) gather insight and feedback from said public (without needing to take time off from work to attend a meeting).

    great work on this blog though. the past couple of weeks of reading this have been very invaluable.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. To Council member O’Brien’s credit, he did publish an op-ed in the Seattle Times this week on the homeless encampment legislation, though it may have been too little too late.

  2. I think releasing the maps without good accompanying communication has led to a huge amount of backlash. And, residents feel like the activists have the bit in their teeth and are controlling the council because they do not see a compromise developing.

    1. The maps I saw circulated were existing maps of public space in Seattle, and my impression is that they were circulated by people to protest the implications of the original draft bill… not circulated by the city or the council.

  3. Stepping away from the ‘content’ of the ordinance, is there a summary somewhere of why Council insists on taking action on this issue? I think I missed the initial reasoning here and am having a difficult time finding a rational, non-biased explanation. It is clear we have a homeless problem, but this issue seems so politically hot that I’m not understanding why city has urgency to break from status quo (as awful as it is). Was it legal issues in clearing the jungle? Cost in enforcing neighborhood complaints? Something else?

    1. I think O’Brien would say it is a compassionate response — that the city continues to simply push homeless people around the city and confiscate their remaining belongings in the process, further disrupting the lives of the least fortunate people in our community. It’s certainly true that the city’s sweeps have continued to be haphazard and unpredictable, despite efforts to add rigor to the process. In his Seattle Times op-ed, O’Brien argues that the sweeps are also tying up city resources in what he sees as a futile and ultimately harmful process. This ties back to the philosophy of “harm reduction” which is popular in City Hall. I encourage you to read O’Brien’s Seattle Times op-ed as a way of understanding his perspective on this complex and difficult issue.

      1. I’m sitting on the sidelines as I do not reside in O’Brien’s district. However, I read about and hear from those who do. I do not believe he has much support left among his constituents. He doesn’t appear to be able to listen to what they articulate. His community meetings seem to be salted with those who believe as he does and thus community concerns that disagree fall by the wayside.

        1. Thanks for your thoughts. You will want to read my post that just went up — I had a long discussion with O’Brien this afternoon and got far more context on what’s been going on. He has intentionally been under-communicating to protect a fragile negotiation happening behind the scenes with a large, diverse group of stakeholders. But that’s done now and it didn’t succeed in reaching consensus, so people are talking again.

    2. I was thinking possible threat of lawsuit by the ACLU over the way the clearances have been performed, and this goes back over years where even legislation that has been previously passed has been violated. So taking it up was like the ACLU threw down the gauntlet and it got picked up. With this pending, I wonder what protocols were followed yesterday.

      Side benefit to me is we are PAYING ATTENTION. The state of emergency was declared how long ago? And, it is very real that there are many people living in pocket parks and their cars, moving them every couple of days. Vast majority in my n’hood very under the radar but then there is a fight and we worry about DV, or there is a group shooting up and camping next to the playground or the YMCA….

      Of course this all has to be backed up with the housing. We needed to build more DESC ‘wet’ buildings and rooming houses, even had we done a few a year over the last 10 years, we’d be in better shape. Sigh.

      LIHI being connected to housing providers and getting involved in the tent cities and with the tiny houses has been very successful. That’s the kind of coordination, continuum, and serious focus on purpose that the city wants to roll out over the next year. Seems the reports said that most tent cities’ organizations have no connection to the housing providers. And people looking for subsidized housing have to repeatedly deal with interviewing with each buildings’ management. It’s a tower of babel.

      So, I think they really set up a coherent ‘system’, acknowledge it can’t just be the charity of non-profits driving, but a public responsibility and funds come with accountability, back it up with building the places, and hopefully these pressures of people living outside will end. That this law expires in a year or so.

      1. The protocols followed yesterday were spelled out in a separate resolution approved by the Council last month specifically for the Jungle.

    1. Yes, and much of the text of the petition is factually incorrect. They are not looking to enact the bill this Friday. The bill has been substantially changed already from what was introduced at the beginning of September, and it is still changing. It doesn’t allow camping anywhere in parks, just in unimproved areas. The fine is $50, not $250. It’s different in many ways from Portland’s bill, which allowed camping anywhere but only at night. It’s not intended to be the city’s solution for homelessness. And six Council members have not expressed their intent to pass it.

      I’m not saying it’s a good bill or that the council should pass it. But we should be having a debate that’s informed by facts.

      1. Agreed. But how do we have a debate based on facts and up to date information, when the updates are not widely published? Why all the secrecy? I have been trying o stay as well as form as possible; but having to depend on “leaked sources” seems pretty shady.

        1. Read my post from last night — O’Brien filled me in yesterday. There were delicate negotiations going on behind the scenes involving reps from organizations that were publicly saying different things. In retrospect, the strategy backfired, but at least you can appreciate why they tried it.

  4. As others have mentioned, if this Council communicated better then perhaps people would be more informed. I feel like I’ve been trying to follow this and was not aware of some of the aspects you describe. That being said, the root of the problem is creating an atmosphere that tolerates this type of activity. The “solutions” proposed only attract more people to this area that are perpetually dependent. The problem needs to be solved as follows:

    1. Stop providing services that allow people to subsist while living this way.
    2. Arrest anyone who attempts to sleep/camp on public property.
    3. Background check those arrested, if they have a warrant, put them in jail or extradite them.
    4. If they are not wanted for criminal activity, find out where they are from. If they are not from Seattle, buy them a bus ticket, $100 for the trip, and send them home with a notice that if they return and are arrested they will spend a year in prison.
    5. If they are from here they should be offered two attempts at rehab, upon the third arrest they should spend a year in prison.
    6. If they are mentally ill they should be institutionalized. There must be a humane way to do this that allows people to live in modest comfort while protecting them from themselves and others.

    If we do that, the numerous privately funded programs for those in need should be able to fill the gap for those that genuinely need assistance.

    Of course the moral relativism that permeates West Cost city governments will make the obvious solutions impossible, but I’m convinced it would go a long way towards reducing this self-imposed “crisis”.

    I appreciate this blog and will follow it closely, even if those it profiles drive me nuts.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, and for reading the blog. The Council is a very diverse group; at any given time I think some of them are driving us all nuts — and probably each other too.

      I want to address a few of the comments you made, because they speak to commonly-held beliefs about the homeless crisis and homeless people in general. In no particular order:

      The real “root of the problem” is that we have 3000 homeless people in Seattle and 4500 in King County. None of them want to be homeless. They’re homeless because they were fired and couldn’t find a new job, or they got sick and lost their job, or they got sick and had huge medical payments that bankrupted them, or their rent got jacked up but they couldn’t afford the move-in fees to move to a cheaper apartment. Very few became homeless because they had a substance abuse problem or mental health issues; the studies show that in general people become homeless first, then develop mental health and/or substance abuse problems.

      In a similar vein, it’s largely a myth that homeless people move to Seattle because of the services here. That myth exists in every major city, but the studies in all those cities, including Seattle, show that the vast majority of homeless people became homeless locally. Which makes sense: most homeless people don’t have the money to move elsewhere, and have too many possessions to easily move on their own.

      Criminalizing homelessness is a frequently-tried and well-documented approach. Not only is it morally objectionable (it’s not their fault they’re homeless), but it accomplishes nothing other than to harass our most vulnerable citizens. Throw them in jail, and when they get out they then have a criminal record and it’s even harder for them to find a job and get housing than it was before.

      The combination of the “numerous privately funded programs” (which are anything but numerous) and the public-funded programs is woefully inadequate compared to the demand for shelter, substance abuse treatment, and mental health treatment. This is because the state and the federal government have systematically cut funding for programs over the past decades. Seattle and King County are trying to do their part locally to open new facilities, but the scale needed is simply beyond what a local government can manage. Plus, the staff need to be trained to work in those programs and facilities, and it takes a long time to train up that many people.

      Similarly, “institutionalizing” people is not really an option when the state and federal governments have shut down a large number of mental institutions over decades — largely to save money. It was short-sighted, we’re paying the price now, and it will take a long time to reverse that trend if we decide that we do, in fact, need more institutions.

  5. So basically then, there is no solution. Of course they are mostly out of work because they are mostly substance abusers. I see that everyday on my way into work. I also disagree that most of them are from here. Nearly every article I’ve read indicates the person they profile either “came here for work” or “came here because they heard Seattle was kind to the downtrodden”. So that is the semantics of this issue. They are “out of work” but they came here looking for work with skills that are either not in demand or not suited for the economy that is driving the unchecked growth in this city.

    If you aren’t drunk, high, or mentally handicapped, there is always a job somewhere. It may be what you consider “beneath you” but there is always work. My father broke his back in an industrial accident when he was 18. They told him he would never live past 40. He taught himself to walk again with crutches, put himself through college and eventually got an MBA with help from Boeing where he worked over 40 years. Raised two kids and put both of us through college. He’s currently 85. I guess some people have the right attitude to succeed and some don’t.

    I’m all for helping people who are genuinely in need due to acts of God or bad luck. I pay lots of tax and donate to charities every year as a result. I’m less sympathetic to those that consistently make bad life choices and expect the rest of us to foot the bill, and then act like it is their right to negatively impact our quality of life without repercussions.

    I appreciated your article this AM. It was very informative.

  6. Like many people I talk to, Im a liberal lefty but this bill is insane. Seriously, consider what this brief article actually says. “It’s unclear, but there could be a 24hr (perhaps longer) wait to move an encampment from a public playground or playing field and potentially a school yard”. Horrible bill. Never should have seen the light of day but remained the wet dream of some ‘regressive leftist’.

    1. Much has changed in the last two days. The current versions of the bill allow for removing encampments from school property and play fields right away.

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