The Seattle Office of Civil Rights will maintain a “high-level,” though diminished, role in monitoring the cleanups of unauthorized homeless encampments.
The Seattle Human Rights Commission is questioning the diminished role of civil-rights monitors in the oversight of the city’s cleanups of unauthorized homeless camps.
The monitors in their new roles, in which they are not on the ground for each sweep, may be too far removed to protect the rights of camp residents, commission co-chair Jeremy Wood said.
“We remain concerned that they (monitors) have been placed at such a remove that they will not be able to maintain the same level of independent scrutiny,” he said.
Representatives from the city’s Office of Civil Rights have been monitoring the cleanups since August, when Murray announced the temporary program and acknowledged flaws in the city’s approach to cleaning up the camps.
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A Seattle Times report in August found the cleanup process was hindered by a variety of bureaucratic failures, including missed start times and camper complaints of lost belongings and personal keepsakes.
Even as administrators began planning additional improvements, the city’s struggles to carry out the cleanups humanely and at scheduled times continued, according to handwritten notes reviewed by The Times.
City officials announced last month that the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, which also coordinates the city’s camp-cleanup efforts, would assume all day-to-day monitoring duties.
A department field coordinator will be present at every cleanup, Director Chris Potter told council members at a Dec. 14 council meeting. That person will have the authority to halt removals not being carried out in accordance with the city’s protocols, he said.
The Seattle Human Rights Commission later sent Mayor Ed Murray a letter raising concerns about the shift.
“The continued presence of OCR (Office of Civil Rights) monitors is vital to ensuring that encampment sweeps do not further violate encampment residents’ civil rights,” the commission wrote in a Dec. 23 letter to Murray’s office.
In response, Murray told the group that while the monitors will no longer go to each cleanup, the office will maintain “high-level” oversight, conducting spot checks, reviewing cleanup reports and periodically conducting interviews with camp residents, according to a Jan. 4 letter from the mayor’s office. The department will also issue a semi-annual report detailing its findings and recommendations, the letter states.
The Finance and Administrative Services department has been “robust and responsible” in its management of the city’s encampment-cleanup efforts, Murray said in his letter.
City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who expressed concern over the initial move ending the role of the Office of Civil Rights, said she is “thankful” that it will now maintain some oversight of the cleanups.
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Additional improvements to the city’s camp-cleanup protocols are in the works, according to city officials. The proposed changes are part of a plan the mayor unveiled in October, when the City Council was debating changes related to illegal camping.
The mayor’s plan heads off an August City Council ordinance initially proposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Columbia Legal Services and other groups that advocate for the rights of the homeless.
Officials said details of the mayor’s proposals will be released to the City Council this month.