Mayor’s office publishes details of homeless encampment plan

On Friday the Mayor’s Office published an “action plan” with further details of how Mayor Ed Murray plans to deal with unsanctioned encampments throughout the city.

Positioning it as “bridging the gap” to the full Pathways Home plan to address homelessness, since that plan will take 18-24 months to roll out, Murray emphasizes that Friday’s announcement is a set of interim measures, and not a solution to homelessness.

Much of Friday’s announcement aligns with and fleshes out the details of the previous week’s announcement, though there are a few surprised. Let’s walk through what it says.

  • First of all, Murray’s plan is not fully funded; his proposed budget has $2.8 million reserved for this purpose, but his plan will cost $3.2 million. That creates a sense of urgency in moving this forward, since the Council is deliberating on the 2017-2108 budget now.
  • The plan includes four new sanctioned encampments. It estimates that those will collectively be able to shelter up to 200 individuals. That will be disappointing to some, who were hoping that there would be more capacity given there are currently at least 3000 people living unsheltered in Seattle.
  • The action plan notes that the city is currently conducting a “needs assessment survey” among homeless people in Seattle, and the results of that survey are due next month.  That should be critical information for two purposes: understanding what accommodations are needed in emergency shelters, and capacity planning for a range of services including substance abuse and mental health treatment, transitional housing, rapid rehousing and diversion.
  • The city plans to substantially increase the size of its in-house outreach staff, which will allow them to become regular and visible presences in neighborhoods throughout the city.
  • The Mayor is doubling down on the “multi-disciplinary team” (MDT) approach to pairing police with outreach workers and service providers to find alternative solutions to minor criminal offenses tied to homelessness, since it’s widely recognized that arresting and jailing the homeless accomplishes little. This will be somewhat controversial, as the Council in its budget discussions earlier this week threw its support behind a sister program called LEAD which has many of the same goals but a different “philosophy of change” behind it. LEAD has been thoroughly evaluated and found to be effective, while MDT is still in a pilot phase and has not been evaluated yet.
  • All “front line” city employees will receive training on how to offer assistance and make referrals for homeless people they encounter in their daily work.

But let’s get to the heart of the announcement: the protocols for clearing unsanctioned encampments.

The Mayor’s action plan lists a new set of rules, largely consistent with last week’s announcement, that replaces the Multi-Department Administrative Rule (MDAR) guiding encampment removal that has been in place since 2008. Interestingly, the plan states that the new rules will be codified in a new MDAR, which the Executive enacts on its own without requiring the assent of the City Council. Given the heated arguments and the multiple competing attempts by Council members to write legislation to set revised rules, I doubt the Council will remain hands-off; they will not want to leave them in a form that Murray could unilaterally change at any time. The plan does say that there will be a public notice and comment period before the new MDAR is finalized.

The new rules say that the city may immediately remove an unauthorized encampment that “poses an imminent public health or safety risk or where the encampment unlawfully obstructs a public use.” Possessions must be stored, and notice must be posted as to where they can be retrieved. Outreach must be provided to any homeless persons at the site.

Interestingly, the action plan is silent as to whether all encampments in parks fit under that rubric and will be immediately removed.

For encampments that do not pose an imminent health or safety risk nor obstructs a public use, there will be 72 hours’ notice provided before clearing. That will include providing a specific 4-hour time and date when the clearing will happen, and if the clearing doesn’t happen within that time it will be rescheduled and a new notice posted. This is to address complaints that the city has had poor discipline in clearing sites when it said it would, which has caused further problems for homeless people trying to manage the rest of their lives around the city’s unpredictable schedule.  Also, the city will arrange delivery of a homeless person’s belongings at a designated time and location, rather than requiring a homeless person to travel to a warehouse and pick up his or her belongings.

In order to increase transparency, the city will maintain a site online where a report of each encampment cleanup will be posted within 7 days of the event. The report will include the location, photographs, a summary of the reasons for the cleanup, a summary of outreach efforts, and a report of any property collected and stored.

The plan also commits to the creation of an Implementation and Advisory Committee, meeting quarterly, to review and provide feedback on encampment cleanup protocols and execution. That’s in interesting outcome; the original ACLU and CLS proposal included that, and it was incorporated into Council member O’Brien’s draft legislation. But Council member Bagshaw’s competing draft did not include an advisory committee.

In addition to the encampment work, the action plan makes other necessary investments in cleanup. A pilot litter and waste pickup program has been running in three locations: Little Saigon, Chinatown-International District, and Ballard. The Mayor’s plan expands that to four as yet unidentified locations.

As described last week, it also establishes next month a needle clean-up program that will respond within 24 hours of a report being called in. It also sets up new needle disposal boxes in several locations around the city that are known to be particular problem areas.

Council member Bagshaw wrote earlier in the week that she supported the Mayor’s recommendations. Council member Johnson, a co-sponsor of O’Brien’s version of the ordinance, also announced that he is shifting his support to the Mayor’s approach “for the time being.”  We’ll see in the coming days how the rest of the Council members feel about the Mayor’s plan, and how strongly they feel that they need to codify it in legislation to tie his hands.