I’ve been scratching my head all afternoon and evening trying to figure out how to write something coherent about what was fundamentally an incoherent, chaotic meeting of the Human Services and Public Health Committee this morning to discuss the pending homeless encampment legislation.
I’m going to give a quick rundown on what happened (ok, maybe not so quick) then share some thoughts and observations.
The meeting was well attended: 7 of the 9 Council members (Johnson and Juarez were absent), and an overflow crowd of whom 90 people signed up for public comment. The crowd was angry and disruptive, in some ways reminiscent of the “Block the Bunker” crowds from a few weeks past though more responsive to committee chair Bagshaw’s frequent requests for them to quiet down and be respectful.
There were two agenda items: a discussion of Bagshaw’s and O’Brien’s dueling versions of the ordinance, to be followed by a briefing from the Mayor’s staff on his announcements from last night. Bagshaw began the meeting by flipping the order so that the Mayor’s staff could go first. That ended up going for an hour and 20 minutes.
George Scarola, the city’s new Director of Homelessness, gave his debut performance in front of the Council — though quite frankly said very little and didn’t impress. Most of the presentation, and the task of fielding sharp questions from Council members, was handled by Ian Warner, legal counsel to the Mayor, and Scott Lindsay, special assistant to the Mayor for homelessness issues. They summarized the Mayor’s announcement from last night, and promised more details and draft legislation next week.
Council member Harrell asked them about how the new sanctioned encampment sites would be chosen and wanted to be involved in the selection process (and in helping to sell it to his district if one is sited there). Warner said that the Mayor would use his powers under the State of Emergency to make the decision and send it to the Council to be ratified (accelerating the process), but assured Harrell that the decision would not be made arbitrarily and Council members’ offices would be consulted.
Council member Herbold raised concerns about a rush to expand the current pilot program to collect trash from four unsanctioned encampments to a much larger effort.
Council member Sawant grilled the Mayor’s staff on their assessment of the final cleanup of the Jungle, and reiterated her concern that most of the Jungle residents didn’t accept offers of housing and moved elsewhere in the city. And then she used the platform to press them on whether the Mayor will support her proposal to fund 1000 units of affordable housing; Lindsay deflected the question by noting the Mayor’s support for the housing levy. He also made the bold claim that even if many people moved to other unsanctioned encampments, they are safer there than they were in the Jungle.
O’Brien pressed on the question of what lessons were learned from the fact that only about 25% of the Jungle residents accepted housing offers. Lindsay replied that they learned they needed more low-barrier housing options — which is why the Mayor is proposing one of the four new sanctioned encampments will be low-barrier, and there will be two Navigation Centers.
O’Brien also asked whether the 2100 people living outside in tents (another 900 live in vehicles) will all have places to be — whether the city has done the math to ensure that after prohibiting camping in parks, sidewalks and school property, they have confirmed that there will be enough space. Lindsay’s reply was twofold: that the plan is to build up more safe alternative locations, and that those not living in problematic areas will be offered a safe alternative location before they are displaced. Which didn’t actually answer the question.
Gonzalez asked about how the city is moving away from the “72 hour notice” rule for encampment removal. Lindsay drew a distinction between problematic (i.e. unsuitable, unsafe and hazardous) encampments and the rest. For the problematic ones, such as one on a playfield, he said that the city needed to move quickly to remove them, but for the rest there would still be robust notice, outreach, and storage of belongings. Lindsay also noted that the existing rules apply to encampments with three tents or more, so sites with one or tents allow them to remove them more quickly (but still with outreach, meaningful offers of housing, and storage of belongings).
At that point, Bagshaw closed that conversation and moved on to a discussion of the two competing versions of the ordinance. After some initial speechifying by Council members Burgess and Sawant, Council staff member Ketil Freeman used a memo he had prepared for the Council to summarize the similarities and differences between the two versions.
Harrell drilled down on several concerns. He had questions as to why it only applied to city-owned and city-managed properties, and whether it was inconsistent to say that it doesn’t apply to private property but it does apply to property the city leases.
Harrell questioned the wisdom of O’Brien’s version saying that in parks the encampments were not prohibited in areas that aren’t “restored or being restored.” He wondered about areas that the city would restore if it had the funding — and whether they could go ask the Parks District for funding if they had through this ordinance established an alternative use for the land (i.e. homeless encampments).
Harrell also voiced his objection to the $50 fine, because he thought it could be gamed easily. Bagshaw agreed, explaining that she didn’t want the city to be getting into fights with people claiming, without evidence, that the city took their belongings.
O’Brien gave a little speech about his perspective on park lands. He has heard Burgess and others assert that park lands are held in the public trust for an intended purpose and they should stay true to that purpose. But O’Brien challenged that notion, since the city has no land held in public trust to help the homeless. He believes that homeless people have both a human right and a constitutional right to sleep somewhere, and for him that is in direct conflict with holding lands in public trust for restricted purposes.
Sawant got the last word, noting that in her view without O’Brien’s legislation the city would be saying that it’s okay to sweep people because the existence of homeless people impedes Seattle residents’ right to use the park. She also argued that the city can’t claim it has a “housing first” first approach unless it uses all of its available resources to create more permanent housing — and launched into her second pitch for support for her effort to fund 1000 new units of affordable housing.
Herbold tried to ask about next steps, but at that point the meeting had been going on for an hour and 45 minutes and Bagshaw sensed that the audience was restless to be heard, so after declaring “I feel like we’re dragging this out,” she cut Herbold off, refused to discuss next steps for the legislation and moved on to public comment. The entire discussion of the two proposed ordinances — which was the reason for the meeting in the first place — lasted only about 20 minutes.
Public comment then went on for over two hours. The advocates for O’Brien’s ordinance, including the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services, had sent people early so as to be at the top of the sign-up list and so much of the first half hour of public comment was in favor of the bill — though some were shouted down by the crowd, including the representative from the ACLU. But most of the rest of the speakers were in loud opposition. Sawant and O’Brien left toward the end of the first hour, but Bagshaw, Harrell, Burgess, Gonzalez and Herbold stuck it out to the end. To Bagshaw’s credit, she gave everyone a chance to speak and all speakers had a full two minutes. Also to her credit she was consistent throughout the entire four-hour meeting in chastising people who booed or tried to shout down speakers, including ensuring that O’Brien and Sawant had ample opportunity to speak.
And now some thoughts:
- Altogether, it was a very strange meeting. Out of four hours, only twenty minutes were spent on what the meeting was supposed to be about: the Council members having the “free and open conversation” about the competing ordinances that Baghsaw had promised. Much of that twenty minutes was a council staff member comparing and contrasting the two bills.
- The heart of the matter is really the philosophical difference in approach between the two bills: O’Brien’s version attempts to ensure that there is enough space for 3000 unsheltered people to be somewhere they aren’t harassed, and Bagshaw’s is much more aggressive about quickly establishing other sanctioned locations as a justification for much tighter restrictions on where unsanctioned encampments are tolerated. That contrast was never addressed. We know that Sawant supports O’Brien’s version, and Burgess supports Bagshaw’s. But there was no opportunity for any of the other Council members to meaningfully wade into that discussion, let alone inform the public as to where they stand. For all the Council’s admission this week that they haven’t been nearly as transparent as they should have been about the ongoing evolution of the bill, they are now repeating their mistake and keeping their conversations and views behind closed doors.
- The fact that Bagshaw was unwilling to discuss next steps is disconcerting. That, combined with her switching around the agenda, suggests that she may be trying to kill off both versions of the ordinance and throw her support to the Mayor’s newly-announced approach.
- Council member O’Brien keeps asking a key question that no one is willing to answer: how much space do we need for 2100 homeless people living unsheltered in our city? No one wants them camping outside, but that is our city’s reality today and it will not change overnight. Putting restrictions on the places where they can camp doesn’t reduce the number of people sleeping outside. And if the restrictions are so tight that the remaining space isn’t enough for 2100 people, then all we’ve done is guarantee that people will be in problematic places. Someone in city government needs to sit down, draw the maps, and do the math.
- Speaking of maps, there were some accusations flying around today that while representatives of the Mayor were sitting at the table over the past few weeks trying to negotiate a consensus view, others in the Mayor’s office were intentionally distributing misinformation to residents in an attempt to undermine O’Brien’s bill. Exhibit 1 was a set of maps highlighting parks and greenbelts, implying that the bill would have authorized camping in all those areas. Arguably the language in the original bill did (even if that wasn’t the authors’ intent) but by the time the maps started circulating both the public and private conversations had moved well beyond that notion to a more restrictive view of “suitable” sites.
- There is a flip side to O’Brien’s argument: in a sense, this debate has become a referendum on what our parks are for. One public commenter this morning contended that the parks are important for everyone’s sanity when 650,000 people live together in an urban environment. If we didn’t need them, he argued, they would already be gone — paved over and built up with housing. Further, he said, if you cede over the parks to homeless encampments (admittedly an extreme view of what O’Brien is arguing for), it’s almost the same thing: the parks will no longer exist in their current form and function. Many others made similar points, pointing to other aspects of how the parks fit into our urban life. There are preschools sited in city parks; there are community centers. There is plenty of wildlife that needs to be protected and conserved. All of these are genuine concerns; city parks fulfill an important and multi-faceted role in our urban environment. Still, none of that is an answer to O’Brien’s fundamental question: where do we find space for the 2100 people who are living unsheltered in our city tonight?
- Today the audience was a major source of cognitive dissonance: an overflow crowd of mostly privileged white people, angry and disruptive, venting their anger at Sawant and O’Brien and praising Burgess. Contrast that with the folks from the Block the Bunker, Black Lives Matter, and Socialist Alternative activist groups who have been showing up in large numbers, disrupting Council meetings, and praising Sawant and O’Brien while excoriating Burgess. Today’s crowd wasn’t as well organized, nor as forceful in their effort to bend the Council to their will, but they forever forfeited their right to complain about bad behavior in Council Chambers. It was interesting watching Sawant in particular, for once not having the crowd on her side and being shouted down.
- Many (but not all) of the people who showed up to vent today seemed to be driven more by what’s happening already than by what the new ordinance would do. Right or wrong, both O’Brien and Baghsaw would argue that their bills would actually improve things over the status quo.
- You have to give Sawant credit: she’s always on message. She never misses an opportunity to plug her proposal to build 1000 units of affordable housing with the money originally intended for the North Precinct police station.
- To be honest, I’d almost forgotten that the Mayor had hired a Director of Homelessness until he showed up at the meeting this morning. George Scarola has been completely invisible throughout this whole debate. He certainly missed a critical opportunity to provide public leadership on the issues and help build public understanding and trust. I assume he’s been involved in the multi-party negotiations behind closed doors, but that effort also failed. What exactly is Scarola doing, and is any of it helping? And if I have to ask, it doesn’t bode well for the answer.
- So what comes next? An excellent question, and I posed it in email to Council member Bagshaw this afternoon. If and when I get a response, I will post an update. We do know that the Mayor will transmit details and draft legislation for his plan next week. We also know that Bagshaw’s committee won’t meet again until December, so unless the Mayor’s legislation were to be sent directly to the full Council for consideration, neither it nor the two competing ordinances from Bagshaw and O’Brien will see further consideration for the next six weeks.
- This is the one outcome I would never have predicted: things are more confusing now than they were a week ago.
If you get stuck at home during this weekend’s storm, you can watch this morning’s meeting here.