This morning the city posted for public review and comment a draft of its rewritten rules for removing unsanctioned homeless encampments from city-owned property.
The rules have been promised for several weeks now, and their posting kicks off a public review and comment period that closes at 5:00pm on February 15th.
These rules replace an older Multi-Department Administrative Rule (MDAR) that has been in place since 2008, and that is the subject of a recently-filed class action lawsuit by the ACLU on behalf of homeless people in Seattle.
The new rules have been split into two parts: a rule for the Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) department detailing the exact protocol for dealing with encampments, and a new MDAR that incorporates the new FAS rule by reference, requires all other city departments to follow it, and lays out some department-by-department variations in allowed use of city property (such as the hours that city parks are open to the public and the penalties for violating those rules). For completeness’ sake there is also a revocation of the old MDAR, and a SEPA checklist the city filled out to demonstrate that encampment removals will not have a substantial impact on the environment (and thus a full EIS study isn’t required).
According to the FAS, the new rules improve over the old MDAR because they:
- Identify specific criteria for prioritizing the removal of encampments.
- Require the offer of a shelter alternative in order to remove many encampments.
- Require the City to deliver materials it stores from encampments to their owners.
- Streamline the process for removing encampments that obstruct the intended use of public facilities like sidewalks and parks.
Most of the new FAS rule matches what was expected. As had been discussed late November, it carves out encampments that present an “obstruction or “immediate hazard” for immediate removal, bypassing much of the bureaucracy tied to typical encampment removal. A notice of removal must still be affixed to the site, and belongings must be stored, but there is no requirement for outreach before or during the encampment removal.
The FAS rule also sets the city up to prioritize the removal of unsanctioned encampments according to eight factors, all of equal weight:
- objective hazards such as moving vehicles and steep slopes;
- criminal activity beyond illegal substance abuse;
- quantities of garbage trash, debris, or waste;
- other active health hazards to occupants or the surrounding neighborhood;
- difficulty in extending emergency services to the site;
- imminent work scheduled at the site for which the encampment will pose an obstruction;
- damage to the natural environment of environmentally critical areas;
- the proximity of homeless individuals to uses of special concern including schools or facilities for the elderly.
The prioritization process requires an inspection of the encampment site prior to removal, and entering it into the Seattle Encampment Response Information System (SERIS).
Encampments that are not deemed “obstructions or immediate hazards” require a written notice of removal at least 3 days, and no more than seven days, before the scheduled removal. The notice, which must be in English, Spanish, and any other languages the city thinks will be helpful, must name a specific four-hour window of time when the removal will begin, and if the removal doesn’t begin during that time the notification process must start over.
Between the time the notice is given and the removal of the encampment, an outreach team must visit the site at least once and make an offer of alternative shelter. The city will maintain a daily list of available shelter and distribute it to its outreach workers. The outreach workers must be present at the start of the encampment removal, and must stay there until all occupants have either accepted or refused an offer of alternative shelter. The whole encampment removal team must be present at the start of any removal.
Once the removal is complete, a new notice must be posted at the site telling any absent residents how and where they can reclaim their belongings. Also, within two days the city must document the removal (including before and after pictures), and FAS will post the documentation on an external web site.
Confiscated belongings will be stored by the city for at least sixty days at a site accessible by public transportation. Alternatively, a person whose belongings have been removed and stored can call by phone and arrange to have their belongings delivered on or before the next business day to a location of their choice in Seattle that is “safe and appropriate for delivery by vehicle.” Storage and delivery is free.
The one new concept in the draft rule is the concept of “emphasis areas.” An emphasis area is a site of “persistent encampment removal or enforcement,” i.e. there are always people camping there, and they move back in quickly after a removal. The city is allowed to designate up to ten such areas and treat them as if they were “obstruction” encampment sites — allowing for immediate removal without the 3-day posting period. Essentially the city would treat those sites as if they were constantly posted for removal. However, under those rules there is no ongoing requirement for outreach to occupants of the site (perhaps assuming it’s the same people moving back in?). Expect the whole concept of emphasis sites to be a cause for concern, and for changes to this before the rules are finally approved.
A glaring omission in the rules is any mention of the Office of Civil Rights as having responsibility to monitor encampment removals. Given the back-and-forth on this issue in recent weeks when the SOCR’s role was cut, and the negotiations to pull them back in, this is very surprising.
As mentioned earlier, the public comment period on the draft rules extends to February 15th. The city is taking comments by U.S. mail and by email:
|Mail:||City of Seattle
Department of Finance and Administrative Services
Attention: Frances Samaniego
P.O. Box 94689
Seattle, WA 98124-4689
At this point, there is no public hearing scheduled for the draft rules. The next scheduled meeting of the City Council’s Human Services and Public Health Committee is February 8th; while the agenda won’t be published until next week, it will likely contain a briefing on the rules, which will create an opportunity for public comment.