Homeless Encampments: An Update

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2016 09 30 Univ PlaygroundIt has been four weeks since my colleagues’ introduced legislation that would create a right to camp on public property throughout the city. I opposed introduction of this legislation.

This photograph was taken last Friday at University Playground on Northeast 50th Street. This particular park includes a children's playground, a tennis court and a sports field. This is not uncommon in city parks and playgrounds.

In this update, I want tell you what’s happened since, why it is so important for the people of Seattle to remain keenly engaged in the discussion, and efforts to change this legislation. This update gives my perspective on three important issues surrounding this proposed new law.

  1. How this legislation will impact you, your family, and neighbors.
  2. The elephant in the room that’s being ignored.
  3. A much better solution.

The Impact on You, Your Family and Neighbors

As introduced on September 6, the proposed law establishes a new right to camp on public property across Seattle, including in our parks and greenbelts, and on sidewalks and planting strips. The law mandates that city government make public spaces available for camping in tents or vehicles. It creates complicated rules and processes that must be followed before anyone can be removed from a camping site. If anyone is removed, the city government must provide “adequate and accessible” long-term housing. Finally, if any of this process is violated, the proposed law establishes a $250 penalty per violation to be paid to the individual camper by city taxpayers.
Needless to say, this new law is not the balanced approach we all deserve, an approach that weighs and balances compassion with our public health and safety

obligations. This proposed law is not balanced and will do absolutely nothing to move people from homelessness to safe and appropriate housing. Nothing.

Look around our great city and ask yourself whether you like what’s been happening even before this new right to camp has been established. Tents along our roadways and in our parks. Trash piling high in our greenbelts, in our neighborhoods and along Interstate 5. It seems as if city government has been paralyzed by the confusion and conflict around homelessness. Just look at the evidence.

Here is a KIRO-TV news report from last Thursday night. Watch it. It broke my heart in two ways. First, how unfortunate that the individual or individuals living in the end-zone tent haven’t taken advantage of the multiple services Seattle has for them and will spend nearly $50 million on this year. Second, how tragic that we have become so confused and conflicted that our park’s staff and police officials failed to remove the tent for our kids’ sake the moment it appeared. Listen carefully to the coach, too. He describes an ongoing high-risk mess at Interbay that, frankly, city officials have allowed to fester.

Last Friday afternoon, after the KIRO report was broadcast, the city finally acted and the end-zone tent was removed. But, had this new right to camp law that my colleagues are advancing been in place that removal would have been blocked for a minimum of 48 hours, perhaps as long as a week or even longer, until we found another location for the camper(s) and complied with the onerous rules the law establishes.
This new law will increase public safety problems and make our neighborhoods less safe. The same night KIRO-TV broadcast their Interbay playfield report, a Good Samaritan was stabbed in the abdomen when he went to the aid of a woman who was being assaulted in a tent in Woodland Park. Witnesses described the suspect to police; he was later arrested. The Good Samaritan was taken to Harborview Medical Center. This isn’t an isolated incident. Living on the street or in our parks is dangerous.

The Elephant in the Room That’s Being Ignored

Read the proposed new camping legislation carefully. It contains a few key phrases that require the city government to allow camping on public property for at least 30 days per location.  In addition, even when an encampment is in an unsafe or unsuitable location, the City cannot remove it until the City has provided 48 hours’ notice, and must offer the individuals alternative locations in which to camp.
This is the elephant in the room that’s not being discussed. The advocates of this proposed legislation believe people should be allowed to camp in tents and vehicles on public property for at least 30 days and more, if the City does not have an available stock of “adequate and accessible” long-term housing, and must allow persons who decline services and housing the right to camp in alternative locations, again for a minimum of 30 days in locations that are not “unsafe” or “unsuitable.”
Really? Forget homelessness for a moment. This new legal right to camp in the city cuts across decades of land use policy and zoning requirements designed to minimize use impacts. This new law sweeps those protections away and creates a high impact use—camping on public property as an individual right. For me, this is going too far.

A Better Solution

If this legislation is adopted by the City Council it won’t move one person to housing. It won’t address drug addiction or mental illness for anyone. And it certainly won’t clean up the piles of garbage we see around Seattle left by urban campers. (These piles of garbage are so contaminated and hazardous that we have trouble finding contractors to do the necessary cleanups.)
But this legislation does do one major thing quite well; it distracts us from measures that will make a difference for people experiencing homelessness. Those measures are called Pathways Home, a series of steps Mayor Murray has proposed to retool our response to homelessness and create increased efficiencies and effectiveness based on an in-depth analysis of what we are doing—or not doing—today.
Pathways Home is an integrated effort with King County, All Home, and United Way to move people from unsheltered living on the street to permanent homes. It is centered on evidence-based practices that have been proven to work in other cities. This is where we should be spending our time and energy. This is the complex work we should be focused on, not on a new law that perpetuates homelessness and makes our neighborhoods less safe. 
The national experts who counseled the city on Pathways Home tell us that all of the unsheltered people in Seattle could be sheltered by the end of 2017. That’s a bold claim based on the experience of other cities, but it is certainly worth pursuing. Why wouldn’t we work hard and urgently to achieve this goal?
Some of my colleagues are working on amendments to the camping law. The suggested amendments I have seen so far don’t cure the core problems with the legislation. I will keep you posted as I continue to advocate for solutions that have been proven to actually end homelessness.
Here’s an interesting discussion of this legislation on the Seattle Growth Podcast.
Stay engaged. Make sure your voice is heard at City Hall regardless of your position on this legislation. Your opinion matters.