The Seattle City Council on Monday voted to regulate up to three new tent encampments for as many as 100 homeless people each.
Seattle will authorize and regulate up to three new homeless encampments, for as many as 100 people each, under an ordinance approved Monday by the City Council.
The tent cities will be on private land or city property, excluding parks, and will — for now — be restricted to nonresidential zones.
Each site will be managed by an experienced shelter provider vetted by city officials and will be held to health and safety standards.
When Mayor Ed Murray proposed the legislation in January, he took care to describe tent cities as a stopgap measure and not a permanent solution to homelessness.
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He pointed to an increase in unauthorized camping in Seattle parks, alongside highways and under bridges.
City staff identified 80 such sites in 2012, 131 in 2013, 351 in 2014 and 49 in roughly the first month of 2015, according to the city’s Human Services Department (HSD), which attributes the uptick to more homelessness and better options for passers-by to report the camps.
“This legislation will help provide a minimum level of safety and stability for hundreds of people currently without a home,” Murray said in a statement.
The ordinance’s approval represents a significant shift in how the rapidly growing metropolis will address one of its most visible and intractable problems.
Though the council in 2011 passed legislation allowing religious institutions to host camps anywhere and for any length of time, two years later it narrowly rejected an ordinance almost identical to the one approved Monday. At that time, several members said they were reluctant to have the city sanction anything other than permanent housing.
The political landscape began to change when socialist Kshama Sawant, a strong believer in tent cities, unseated then-Councilmember Richard Conlin, who had voted against the measure, and when Murray won election over then-Mayor Mike McGinn.
Though his stance on encampments is essentially the same, Murray has benefitted from a closer working relationship with the council than McGinn had in 2013.
Murray tweaked the earlier bill by proposing the number of new camps be capped and that shelter providers work with the city to move people into real housing.
He sought to head off criticism by pitching the legislation as a response to a crisis. Murray cited the One Night Count, an annual survey that found 2,813 people sleeping outside in the city Jan. 24 this year, up from 2,303 in 2014 and 1,989 in 2013.
Before unveiling his plan, Murray made what’s become his signature political move: Under pressure to take action on homelessness, he convened an advisory task force in October. Encampments were one of the panel’s recommendations two months later.
The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness advises that encampments don’t end homelessness and can distract communities from connecting people with permanent housing, interim director Matthew Doherty stressed Monday.
But Eric Tars, who as senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness is working with the feds on guidance for communities with encampments, said authorized encampments are a better choice than “criminalizing homelessness.”
Seattle is the largest municipality in the country to set up official camps, he said. If the city uses the sites as a way to move people rapidly toward permanent housing, the program may be a step in the right direction, Tars said.
The mayor’s legislation, slightly amended, ultimately won support Monday from all nine council members, including the four remaining members who voted “no” in 2013.
The response at City Hall was thunderous applause. Lisa Sawyer, 28, was one of several current and former tent-city residents who cheered.
“I’m happy the city recognizes how bad the homeless situation is,” Sawyer said. “I’ve been in tent cities and I’ve been on the street and I know the difference. I’ve been shot at and I’ve had my stuff stolen. Encampments are just safer.”
The only point of contention was an amendment, sponsored by Sawant, directing city staff to study the impact of allowing the new encampments in residential zones.
Leading up to the vote, a number of homeless people slammed the zoning restriction in Murray’s proposal as discriminatory. Some even described it as “redlining.”
The council split over the issue, with the mayor and his allies making the argument that nonresidential zones offer better access to services and transit.
In the end, the amendment passed 6-3. Council President Tim Burgess and Councilmembers Sally Clark and Jean Godden opposed it.
“We are all residents, whether we have a roof over our head or not,” Sawant said.
There are some authorized tent cities in Seattle already, mostly hosted by churches under the 2011 ordinance. Encampments not hosted by religious institutions have, until now, had to obtain temporary-use permits, which last only four weeks to six months.
Tent cities authorized under the new ordinance will be allowed to stay at any one site for up to a year, with the option of requesting a single one-year extension.
The sites will need to be within a half-mile of a transit stop and at least one mile from each other.
The council amended Murray’s proposal to ensure that the new encampments will be allowed on property owned by higher-education institutions.
People under 18 will be allowed in the new tent cities only when accompanied by a parent or guardian, and the shelter providers will be required to maintain liability insurance.
The city will select and control the encampments through permits, leases and funding. The ordinance allows the city to require advance notice for neighbors and community advisory committees for each site.
City staffers are working on a list of potential sites. The ordinance will expire in 2020.
The council has budgeted about $170,000 in 2015 to provide physical necessities and case-management services at encampments.
Sawant grabbed some headlines in November when she suggested money might be used to provide tent cities with wireless Internet access.
Whom the city selects to run the new encampments will be something to watch. The nonprofit Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), which has run most of the city’s encampments over the years, has plenty of admirers and critics.
“This is not a permanent solution to homelessness, but it is a humane approach that offers people currently sleeping on the streets a safe place to be along with access to services to help them get back on their feet,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who shepherded the bill through the council.