Bagshaw speaks to homeless encampment legislation, and Murray joins the fray

In advance of a much-hyped meeting of her Human Services and Public Health committee meeting tomorrow, Council member Sally Bagshaw held a press conference this afternoon to express her thoughts on the two competing proposals for regulating cleanups of homeless encampments.


“This has been one of the most complicated things I’ve ever worked on.”

That’s how Bagshaw began her press conference. Stressing that “there are no villains here,” she reiterated much of what Council member O’Brien told me yesterday about the behind-the-scenes negotiations between Council members, their staff, homeless advocates, neighborhood and business representatives, and the Mayor’s office.  In the end they were unable to reach consensus, thus the two competing proposals from O’Brien and herself.  She noted that the two of them have had over 25 hours of meetings on this topic, and “we are in complete agreement on principles.” She added that the one major point of disagreement without resolution is a key one: where people are allowed to stay.

Bagshaw represented O’Brien’s view as that the city needs to leave as much space open as possible until such time as alternative or better housing can be offered (that’s consistent with what he has told me). She, on the other hand sees a different path: she wants the Mayor to quickly build out sanctioned, managed encampments at scale, starting immediately, as an alternative to allowing homeless people to camp elsewhere. Her ordinance directs the mayor to start work on the sanctioned encampments right away. With the expectation that the sanctioned, managed sites will begin to appear quickly, her bill is far more restrictive on where unsanctioned camps would be tolerated and stricter on enforcement. It prohibits encampments entirely  in parks and greenbelts at least initially, but allows for the Mayor’s Office to potentially come back to the Council and suggest a list of places that might be acceptable. That last part is completely up to the discretion of the Mayor; if he chooses not to do that, then all park and greenbelt space will continue to be deemed “unsuitable.”

Baghsaw strongly believes that sanctioned encampments are a key to the short-term management of the homeless crisis while the larger “Pathways Home” solution spins up. While she’s happy that the Mayor has committed to the first Navigation Center, she thinks Seattle needs at least 3 to 4 across the city and county.

There continues to be frequent comparisons to the rules that Portland enacted that turned out so terribly.  Bagshaw’s take:  Portland’s failure was not necessarily the restrictions it put in place (or lack thereof), but in lack of enforcement of those restrictions, which quickly led to large numbers of homeless people camping together in unsuitable places. She wants to make sure that the city is staffed up and ready to respond quickly, effectively and efficiently, across all the city departments and outreach organizations that are part of the response. “We need to have outreach teams that are ready to go.”

She said her hope for tomorrow’s meeting is to discuss the two options, and to get consensus among the Council members on the principles underlying the city’s handling of unsanctioned encampments.  She reiterated that she will not call for a vote on either version of the bill, which means that it will not be taken up again until December at the earliest. But in the meantime, she said that she is pressing the Mayor to step up with a scope of work and a schedule (and hopefully a budget) for building out sanctioned, managed encampments.

It didn’t take long for the Mayor to respond. In a hastily-arranged press conference this evening, Murray (flanked by Council members Bagshaw, Burgess and Juarez) announced “a balanced approach to addressing unauthorized encampments on public property” that embraces many of the points in Bagshaw’s proposed legislation.  Among the things he announced:

  • The city will not allow camping in parks, on sidewalks, or on school property, or in locations that create imminent health or safety risks to either homeless people or others in the community. But it will not displace people from unauthorized encampments unless it can provide a reasonable alternative place to go.
  • To that end, next week the Mayor will be transmitting to the Council legislation that authorizes $1.2 million for the opening of four new sanctioned encampments, including one that will be a pilot for a “low barrier, harm reduction” encampment where the typical restrictions (i.e. sobriety) are lifted.
  • The Mayor is proposing $1 million in the 2017 budget to invite service providers and other NGO’s to propose options for “immediate creation of additional indoor shelter and storage capacity.”
  • Seattle Parks and Recreation will make the restroom and shower facilities at a geographically-spread set of pools and community centers available free of charge.
  • The city will attempt to double its outreach capacity.
  • SPD will create a new homeless engagement team to work with outreach workers on “solutions that best serve homeless populations prone to substance abuse and mental illness.”
  • Starting in November, the city will provide needle pickup in public areas within 24 hours of a report, seven days a week. It will also install at least 10 sharps disposal boxes in strategic locations across the city.
  • The city will increase garbage removal services to help address garbage generated by encampments.
  • Next week the Mayor will transmit a resolution to the Council that improves several aspects of encampment cleanup operations, including transparency, prioritization, notification, and property storage.

One could argue that the Mayor co-opted Bagshaw in order to avoid seeing an ordinance passed that he disliked and would ultimately need to veto. One could argue just the opposite: that Bagshaw co-opted the Mayor, using the loud public outcry over the past month, to extract key concessions.  It’s entirely possible that both are true. It would also be fair to say that O’Brien won the day, to the extent that his original goal in introducing the ACLU/CLS bill might have been simply to force Baghsaw and Murray to actually do something about the ineffective, haphazard, wasteful, and ultimately harmful sweeps the city has been doing for the past several months. Mission accomplished.

But this means that there are now three competing legislative proposals: O’Brien’s draft ordinance, Bagshaw’s draft ordinance, and Murray’s legislation to be transmitted to the Council next week. And tomorrow’s meeting will still have a debate on the key unresolved issue: where, if anywhere, unsanctioned encampments are tolerated.  Murray’s embrace of quickly building out more sanctioned encampments leans in favor of Bagshaw’s philosophy of “more restrictions on unsanctioned encampments but move people to sanctioned ones,” and Burgess and Juarez signaled with their presence at this evening’s press conference that they are on Team Bagshaw. It will be interesting to see how hard O’Brien continues to press for a more expansive view of where unsanctioned encampments will be tolerated, as well as how many other Council members line up behind him, given that public opinion is running against allowing encampments in parks at all and O’Brien has not entirely given up on allowing camping in some disused areas.

I asked Bagshaw this afternoon what the timeline looked like for further consideration of the legislation after the budget process completes. While noting that it would need to happen through her committee, she was unwilling to commit to putting it on the agenda for her next committee meeting until after tomorrow morning’s meeting. That suggests she either has no idea what will happen tomorrow, or she is expecting a specific outcome but is holding her cards close so as not to tip it.

We’ll learn more tomorrow morning.