The ongoing debate over how to handle unsanctioned homeless encampments has become deeply entangled in this year’s budget process, with both sides engaging in a war of words and with competing budget proposals attempting to enforce or modify the encampment removal procedures.
This played out during last year’s budget season as well, though as an independent thread with dueling ordinances attempting to supercede the executive branch’s rules for encampment removal (aka the Multi-Department Administrative Rule or MDAR). In the end, none of the ordinances advanced but then-Mayor Ed Murray instructed his team to rewrite the MDAR. The revised version was enacted earlier this year; among its new provisions was a rule that unsanctioned encampments that don’t present an immediate hazard may not be removed unless a meaningful offer of alternative shelter is made to the encampment’s inhabitants. Also, inhabitants’ personal belongings must be stored and returned to their owner upon request.
Several concerns have been raised with the new MDAR. The immediate concern is whether the city is actually following its own rules; there are many anecdotal reports of encampments that have been removed without the required prior notice, of personal belongings that have been discarded, and of other violations. The Office of Civil Rights has been monitoring encampment removals, but it isn’t staffed adequately to oversee all removals. Also, the office reports up through the Mayor, and as such is subject to political pressure to support the executive branch’s stated positions and initiatives, so it’s valid to question whether it is fully vested in the interests of homeless people being displaced.
Even if the MDAR is being followed to the letter, there are still concerns. According to the city, about 40% of the time meaningful offers of shelter or other services are accepted; that is a significant step up from a year ago, but it still means that 60% of encampment residents are simply being pushed somewhere else in the city when their encampment is removed. In the process, they often will complain that they lose important personal belongings, and outreach workers will often lose track of where they are living; both set back efforts to stabilize homeless people, bring them in from outside, and get them the services they need. Many homeless people have been homeless for an extended period of time and have been treated poorly by the “system,” and it’s completely understandable that they would be resistant to accepting an offer of shelter and/or services from the city when they have been mistreated in the past for doing so. Since the acceptance rate of offers of service will never reach 100%, so the argument goes, the MDAR approach is guaranteeing that a large portion of the homeless population is continually destabilized by the city as they are pushed from place to place.
Three Council members who agree with this view (Sawant, Harris-Talley and O’Brien) put forth a budget proposal that would forbid the city from removing homeless encampments, “except when the persons or property are on school property, active rights-of-way including sidewalks and stairways, activated park spaces, City utility rights-of way, or controlled-access areas of City-owned property,” while still allowing the city to provide services and remove trash and debris at the sites of encampments. This is similar to the ordinance that O’Brien offered last year limiting encampment removals.
In response, Budget chair Herbold offered an alternative budget proposal, which would restrict encampment removal funds to only activities that strictly adhere to the updated MDAR. It also calls for the city to take another look at possible revisions to the MDAR, and to report back by September 2018 with its own recommendations as well as those from the encampment cleanup advisory board. While sympathizing with her colleagues, she stated her belief that a major policy change like this one should not be entangled in the budget process and should be resolved independently.
Yesterday when Herbold’s “balancing package” budget was revealed that included her alternate proposal instead of the Sawant/Harris-Talley/O’Brien version, Sawant and Harris-Talley both voiced their disagreement and argued for reinstating theirs. Sawant rallied her supporters to speak out at the Wednesday evening public hearing on the budget, demanding a stop to the “sweeps” and to reinstate her related budget proposal. Speak Out Seattle also organized its troops to show up in support of encampment removals.
Also on Wednesday, Mayor Burgess and several city department heads led an offensive to dissuade the Council from adopting the Sawant/Harris-Talley/O’Brien proposal. They sent a joint packet of letters to the Council detailing their objections to the proposal, many of which are repeats of the objections raised by the Murray administration last year. Among their stated concerns:
- It would open up parks and green spaces to unauthorized camping. That would potentially undermine the important contributions of those areas to the environmental health of the city (including maintaining healthy plant life and controlling soil erosion, water runoff, and slides on steep slopes). It would also create risks to human health for the encampment residents, as well as park visitors and neighbors, since the encampments would accumulate rodents and vermin, food-borne disease, needles, and human waste. It would also create fire hazards in those park and greenbelt areas with ample vegetation.
- They point to the recent and ongoing Hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego, which is ravaging its homeless community, as an example of a public health hazard that Seattle must take steps to avoid by proactively cleaning up encampment sites.
- Allowing camping in parks and greenbelts contravenes several existing state and local laws. That includes Chapter 18.12 of the Seattle Municipal Code setting operating hours for parks and making it unlawful to camp in areas not authorized for such. Also, the voter-approved Initiative 42 restricts the use of parks and recreation land for only those purposes. Finally, the State Recreation and Conservation Office funded several dozen city park properties that are thus required to be maintained by the city in the status and purpose for which the funds were granted; the packet of letters sent to the Council includes a letter from the RCO dated October 2016 with a list of those properties and a reminder that allowing unsanctioned homeless encampments on those properties is inconsistent with the city’s duty to maintain them.
- Allowing encampments near and under critical infrastructure (e.g. highways and overpasses) creates fire and explosion risks.
- Some encampments become sites for criminal activity, including theft, sexual assault, and drug dealing. The executive branch argues that law enforcement must be allowed to take measures to deal with criminal activity, including removing encampments that they believe are attracting such activity.
- Allowing encampments can create legal liabilities for the city, particularly if third parties are impacted or injured by residents of encampments on public property. It might also create liability to the city for violating state and federal laws related to the ADA, requirements for maintenance of public right of way, and environmental and public health statutes.
- Prohibiting the removal of unsanctioned encampments will make it more difficult for first responders, including fire and medical staff, from servicing those areas and create additional health and safety risks for them. Part of the reasoning for this, as seen in the past with the “Jungle,” is that accumulations of human waste and needles in particular can create extreme hazards for first responders.
- Prohibiting the removal of encampments also makes it more difficult for Seattle Public Utilities to deliver on its obligations (recently stepped up) to remove litter and illegal dumping around the city.
- In a surprising and counter-intuitive revelation, the city department heads also claim that placing dumpsters and porta-potties at the site of some larger unsanctioned encampments has not been helpful. They claim that the facilities have not been utilized by the encampment residents, and yet their presence has communicated that the site has tacit approval from the city so they tend to attract even more homeless people.
Along with these concerns, the Mayor and his staff argue that the single most effective intervention in the emergency homeless response has been the Navigation Team, which has been the front-line for outreach to encampment residents before removals and the chief coordinators of the removals themselves. Nevertheless some Council members, including Herbold, want to see more data to support their claim. The City Auditor’s office has been working on a report on the Navigation Team that was supposed to be released last month; they tell me that they are finalizing that report now and it should be published by the end of the week. Herbold has also submitted a budget proviso that requires regular reports on the Navigation Team’s activities. Of particular concern, as it relates to the Navigation Team’s leading role in the MDAR execution, is the process through which the city prioritizes unsanctioned encampments for cleanup — which to-date has never been explained in detail.
There are certainly strong arguments on both sides: pushing homeless people around the city is hurting people we want to help, but unsanctioned homeless encampments can also present a range of public health and safety hazards — on top of the legal problems they cause — that the city can’t ignore. The middle-ground compromise of the MDAR doesn’t sit well with many homeless advocates, as there is no independent outside monitoring or enforcement and no clear statement of the city’s priorities for removing encampments. Former Mayor Murray didn’t address those concerns, and it’s unclear whether Burgess will in his remaining four weeks in office. Both Mayoral candidates Jenny Durkan or Cary Moon have made public statements regarding encampment removals, though how the winner of that race responds once she is actually sitting behind the Mayor’s desk is another story. The city’s recent history in handling encampment removals doesn’t engender much trust in city officials (nor should it). Today the Office of Civil Rights issued a report based on its monitoring of encampment removals; it claims that the city is complying with the MDAR rules, but several underlying issues remain.
And the bigger problem looms above: there isn’t enough housing in the city, and there aren’t enough shelter beds and treatment programs to bring our homeless neighbors inside. The new Navigation Center and the recently opened low-barrier shelter at the First Presbyterian Church are both full already, and finding it difficult to move people out into permanent housing at the rate they had originally predicted. Even the newest sanctioned encampment sites are filling up quickly. These capacity constraints are quickly becoming a limit on the Navigation Team’s ability to make meaningful offers of alternative shelter as required by the MDAR. That will be the next flash point in the ongoing argument over Seattle’s unsanctioned encampments. It’s been proposed that a second Navigation Team should be established to engage with the homeless people living in vehicles; that will be fruitless if even the first team doesn’t have enough places to offer.
In the short term, this debate will generate far more heat than light, especially for both the election campaigns and the budget negotiations. It’s unlikely that the Council will adopt the Sawant/Harris-Talley/O’Brien proposal to stop most encampment removals. Over time, the Council members will hopefully shine more sunlight on how the MDAR is being implemented and the operations of the Navigation Team. Some minor fiddling with the rules may follow, but we’re stuck with the middle ground for the foreseeable future, and most people will continue to be unhappy about that.