The City Council met for five and a half hours this afternoon. The official topic was a proposed bill that would codify restrictions on the removal of unsanctioned homeless encampments, and from time to time the bill garnered a mention or two. In the end there were no votes today on amendments or on the bill itself, and for the most part things concluded right where they began. But there were the occasional nuggets of wisdom shared, and if you squinted you could see hints of a path to get the city to a better place in its attempts to deal with the one-two punch of a homelessness crisis and a pandemic.
The bill itself is as good as dead, and any efforts to continue tuning it are just for show. Deputy Mayor Mike Fong made it clear that the Mayor believes legislating rules for encampment cleanups is not the right approach, and there is nothing that the Council could do to the bill that would cause her to change her mind about it. Since the bill is drafted as emergency legislation that requires the Mayor’s approval, if she’s not on board then there is no path for it to become law. Lewis correctly interpreted that impasse, though he seems willing to go through the motions of discussing amendments at a future committee meeting anyway.
But the long, sometimes painful, discussion still proved useful as it highlighted the two real underlying problems, neither of which the proposed bill actually addresses.
Problem #1. There actually is no substantive disagreement on the rules currently in force for when an encampment may be removed. The general MDAR rules have been in place for years, and earlier this year when the COVID-19 outbreak was ramping up, those rules were restricted further based upon guidance from the CDC that unless alternative shelter was available that would not put individuals in close proximity to each other, cities were better off leaving homeless encampments in place to prevent further dispersion of infected individuals (though the guidance leaves some wiggle room for extenuating circumstances such as larger public safety issues).
The real issue is whether the Navigation Team is actually following those rules when removing encampment cleanups. They claim that they are, but other stakeholders argue otherwise: that the encampments don’t meet the threshold of an ‘extreme” situation that requires redress, that the Navigation Team is not making meaningful offers of appropriate shelter, and/or that during the removals themselves the Navigation Team and police are inattentive to the needs and best interests of the remaining residents. This is not a new accusation; it has been leveled against the Navigation Team since shortly after its launch. But the people making the accusations are also not neutral, objective observers: they tend to be homeless advocates and those who have staked out a public position against the Navigation Team’s mission.
This issue never gets resolved because there is no objective monitoring of whether the Navigation Team follows the rules — not since the Office for Civil Rights stopped doing that job in the fall of 2017. And there definitely needs to be monitoring: the Navigation Team shows up to an encampment with SPD escorts, and as a basic principle of good governance we should not be taking on faith the word of the people with the guns. Ideally the monitoring should be performed by people who don’t report up to the Mayor, since she is also responsible for the Navigation Team, but that makes it more difficult to identify who should own this responsibility — and it was one reason why the Office for Civil Rights stopped monitoring encampment removals.
But again: the rules aren’t the problem, and rewriting the rules or codifying them in law won’t solve the problem if there is still no mechanism to ensure that the Navigation Team is actually following the rules. The Mayor’s Office swears that they did everything right in last week’s two encampment removals; others disagree. If the Morales bill passes, that dynamic won’t change. What will change it is active, objective monitoring of the Navigation Team’s activities.
Problem #2. All the acceptable shelter space is full. Before COVID, it had become clear that “tiny home” villages have emerged as the best practice for emergency shelter for homeless individuals, surpassing the Navigation Center and other 24-hour “enhanced” shelters. But the pandemic has raised the bar, and the CDC’s guidance raises question about whether congregate shelters — even enhanced ones — can be configured with enough separation between individuals to prevent them from becoming COVID transmission hotspots. There was strong disagreement about that today, with Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller saying that they can be made acceptable (and Seattle-King County Public Health Director Patty Hayes agreeing at least in theory), and Council member Mosqueda sharply disagreeing. But all acknowledged that even if they are acceptable places to refer homeless individuals during the COVID-19 emergency, the process of “de-densifying” them has reduced the total shelter capacity, straining a shelter system that was already operating at or near capacity. The city has created a small amount of additional de-densified enhanced shelter in the last two months, but for the most part it has just maintained the status quo and has not increased the total beds available.
The solution that the city and county have been dancing around is to use hotel rooms to temporarily house homeless individuals. There are plenty of empty hotel rooms in Seattle and the surrounding area right now, and plenty of hotels that could use some revenue. The county has been renting hotel rooms to quarantine individuals suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 who have nowhere else to isolate. And the City of Seattle has partnered with LEAD to create the “co-LEAD” program for low-level offenders being released from the county jail now who would otherwise be homeless, and that program is also using hotel rooms. But scaling up the use of hotel rooms as shelter for a much larger number of homeless individuals, while attractive, is an expensive proposition, and no one has identified a pot of money to use for such purposes yet. The city’s looming $300 million budget crisis will make this challenging.
It became clear in today’s conversation that the current lack of acceptable shelter is the core problem — not encampment removals. If the Navigation Team had hotel rooms, tiny homes, and properly distanced enhanced shelter spaces to offer individuals who were in encampments that needed to be removed, most people at today’s meeting seemed to believe that the acceptance rate for offers of shelter would skyrocket. That would largely make the encampment removals uncontroversial; people would have a better place to go, and most would gladly go there. The most vocal objection to encampment removals is the perceived cruelty of continuously pushing homeless people around the city from encampment to encampment since they have nowhere else to go that’s better. Offer something that’s clearly better and meets their needs, and the the objections melt away.
Lewis got this — at least in part. At the end of the meeting, he said that he wanted to take up an offer extended by Fong for further conversations, in order to explore three areas:
- A “path to having consultative conversations” around the MDAR rules for encampment cleanups. Yes, he’s still focused on rewriting the rules.
- A discussion with the City Budget Office and the Mayor’s Office on “special and unique resources we have from the State and other partners,” and the opportunities they create along with local resources to scale up acceptable shelter options. That includes hotel rooms and “tiny homes.” Lewis also wants to discuss the long-term lack of supply of shelter options, a problem that existed before COVID-19 and will likely be around long after the virus threat recedes.
- How the co-LEAD program can help inform the encampment removal strategy.
Lewis is scheduling another committee meeting for June 10, to which he intends to invite representatives from the City Budget Office, the Mayor’s Office, and the Human Services Department (which oversees the Navigation Team) to discuss these three areas — and possibly Morales’s bill, if anyone still cares about it by then. Let’s give credit where due though: it was important in that it forced people to the table to talk about the real issues, and hopefully find a productive path forward.
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