A Seattle Office of Civil Rights report about cleanups of homeless encampments addresses issues of notice and storing belongings.
Eliminate subjectivity around which items collected during homeless camp sweeps should be stored or thrown away. Ensure city staffers give proper notice of pending cleanups. And make sure partner agencies like the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) are clear on the rules that govern the camp cleanups.
Those are some of the recommendations from a report by the Seattle Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The report, the first since the department ceased day-to-day monitoring duties of sweeps, covers about 50 removals of homeless encampments conducted from September to December 2016.
The report addresses several issues uncovered in a series of Seattle Times reports that found the city’s cleanup process beset by failures, including missed start times, lack of coordination and cooperation among city police and other agencies, and complaints by homeless campers that their personal items were being thrown away.
Controversy over the removals continues, with some cleanups attracting groups of protesters. In January, two women filed a lawsuit against the city claiming the city and the state transportation department workers violate the rights of people living outdoors by seizing and destroying their property. A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for September.
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Among other recommendations, the report calls on city staffers tasked with posting notice that a camp is scheduled for removal to coordinate with outreach workers ahead of time so they can connect with residents before the cleanup.
It also recommends staffers with the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), which coordinates the city’s camp-cleanup efforts, have copies of the rules for item storage and disposal at each cleanup.
Several of the recommendations already are underway, officials say.
In April, Seattle implemented a host of new rules for conducting cleanups of unauthorized encampments on public property. Among other guidelines, they outline how work crews should handle the storage and disposal of personal belongings found inside the camp.
Staffers overseeing the removals have received extensive training to ensure consistency with the new rules, said Meg Olberding, Seattle Human Services Department spokeswoman. They’re also provided journals with which to document items that are found, disposed of and stored, she said. Reports and photos of each cleanup are posted to the city’s website.
In February, FAS postponed a scheduled cleanup near the south end of the Ballard Bridge, Olberding said. Officials at the scene decided that additional security was needed after a group of people arrived to protest the removal. The Ballard Bridge cleanup is the only removal canceled or halted since February, Olberding said.
The report is the first produced by the Seattle Office of Civil Rights since its monitoring duties were transferred to the Department of Finance and Administrative Services department last December.
Mayor Ed Murray said at the time that the civil-rights office would continue to provide a level of oversight, but discontinue monitoring each scheduled cleanup. Murray said the department instead will review reports of cleanups monthly and periodically conduct spot-checks.
The Seattle Human Rights Commission questioned the lessened role of OCR in a January letter to Murray. Co-chair Jeremy Wood said this week the report indicates there’s still a need for civil-rights personnel to have a greater role in monitoring camp removals.
“The new protocols allow a significant amount of discretion to the FAS staff,” he said.
“It makes more sense to have the office whose mission is ensuring people’s rights closer to the process, not further removed.”
City Councilmember Lisa Herbold said she supports clarifying OCR’s current duties rather than expanding them. Under the revised protocols for camp cleanups, Herbold said, OCR staff should be included in the process of determining which encampment removals are prioritized because of safety, health or other concerns. She also called for more clarity on how many site spot-checks of cleanups the OCR staff will conduct.
“I think the sensitivity and competency has grown over the past year, but there’s still room for OCR to help ensure that we’re doing this job right,” she said.
Herbold said the City Council will begin discussion of the OCR report at a July 12 meeting of the Human Services & Public Health Committee.