The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and other organizations that advocate for the rights of homeless people are proposing a city ordinance protecting those in unsanctioned encampments.

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and organizations that advocate for the rights of homeless people want the Seattle City Council to approve broad new protections for people camping on public property.

The proposed ordinance would further restrict how city officials can evict people from encampments on roadsides, in greenbelts and under bridges across Seattle — requiring them to provide housing during a month of outreach or relocate campers to a less-dangerous site.

Outlined in a letter to council members Wednesday, the proposal comes days after a Seattle Times story documented problems with the city’s clearing of camping sites, including bureaucratic failures that make life harder for people already struggling to survive.

By taking an ordinance directly to the council, the advocacy organizations are attempting to bypass Mayor Ed Murray, with whom they’ve repeatedly butted heads.

 

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Cleaning up encampments is a key factor in Seattle’s strategy to address its homeless crisis, but often leaves homeless residents confused, upset and without important possessions. Read more. (Bettina Hansen & Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)    

Hours after The Times story was published online Friday, Murray said he would increase monitoring of how the city clears unsanctioned encampments and require outreach workers to be on the scene at the beginning of each eviction.

He also announced members of a task force charged with making recommendations on how to improve the city’s response to camping, including its guidelines for what the mayor calls cleanups and what some homeless people call sweeps.

But the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services have declined Murray’s invitation to join the task force, saying they’re tired of talking.

Wednesday’s letter is signed by representatives from those two organizations, and from the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, the Public Defender Association, the Seattle Community Law Center and the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project.

“We’re focused on passing this ordinance because we feel strongly that now is the time for action,” said Elisabeth Smith, ACLU’s legislative director, noting that wetter and colder weather is approaching. “We’ve been engaging in conversation and discussion for months. We don’t want to keep talking while people are living outside.”

Smith said multiple council members have indicated they’ll support the ordinance. She stopped short of saying the organizations have approval locked up.

The mayor’s spokesman, Benton Strong, said, “There are some question marks” about the proposed ordinance and the city’s responsibility to maintain health and safety. He said Murray had hoped the organizations would collaborate with him.

Existing guidelines require Seattle officials to give homeless residents 72 hours’ notice before clearing a site and to use outreach workers to connect them with shelter beds or other services.

But cleanup crews have often showed up long after the 72-hour period has passed and without outreach workers on hand.

The ordinance proposed by the advocacy organizations would allow the city to continue evicting campers from sites deemed truly dangerous, after a short notice period. But in such cases, officials would need to make available a safer site nearby.

And for sites not immediately dangerous, there would be a 30-day waiting period during which outreach would be required. Even after the 30 days, the city would need to offer adequate housing before forcing someone to move.

The ordinance would require the city to provide basic garbage, sanitation and harm-reduction services upon request at sites with more than five people.

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And it would require the city, when clearing out encampments, to do more to preserve and connect people with their belongings, including items important to people despite not having much monetary value.

Notices posted at encampments would need to be provided in languages likely to be spoken by campers — not just English. And if officials violated the ordinance, the city could be forced to pay $250 to each affected camper.

“We’re hoping the city can create a more tailored response to individual situations,” Smith said. “Right now, people are being swept, re-swept and chased across the city.”

Officials have been working to make more housing and better shelter options available. In June, Murray said the city would open a 24-hour shelter modeled after San Francisco’s Navigation Center.

On Tuesday, the mayor announced the hiring of the city’s first director of homelessness.

The proposed ordinance could prevent officials from shutting down operations similar to Camp Second Chance. Since late July, about 20 people have been living together in tents on vacant city property near White Center.

The campers weren’t authorized to set up on the Myers Way South site, but their area is tidy, they’re out of the way and they have portable toilets.

The city initially gave the campers notice, and then backed off after they and others protested, said Polly Trout, whose volunteer nonprofit Patacara Community Services has been helping Camp Second Chance.

“What we most need is housing, but short of that, people need a safe space,” Trout said. “The city should freeze the sweeps, with exceptions for encampments where people are getting hurt. If people are getting raped, stabbed and shot, then do a sweep.”

Trout added: “But if women can sleep at night without being afraid … then sweeping them just interferes with them as they try to move forward.”