A proposed new ordinance from the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services would effectively open Seattle parks to homeless camping.
SEATTLE confronts an epic humanitarian crisis. Thousands of people are living in perilous conditions across our city — under roadways, on sidewalks, even at the edge of some streets. January’s One Night Count indicated a 19 percent increase in people living without shelter over the last year.
Our fellow residents’ lack of safe and clean shelter is reprehensible, and much more must be done to ensure all Seattleites have a roof over their head. But the City Council is poised to fast-track a narrow approach to this crisis that threatens to make conditions worse.
A coalition of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Columbia Legal Services, is putting legislation before the council that would severely limit the city’s ability to manage or clean up illegal encampments. This proposal was released less than a week after Mayor Ed Murray and Councilmember Sally Bagshaw convened a cross-sector community task force to examine the issue of encampment cleanup and recommend a comprehensive and compassionate strategy that integrates public health, safety and long-term housing solutions. We must give this task force time to develop a thoughtful plan to move forward.
This rapid movement of the advocacy legislation would undermine countless hours of careful, respectful work by the Mayor’s Office and others to move unsheltered populations from dangerous environments to safe ones.
Passing legislation that, in all practicality, prohibits cleanup of encampments is inconsistent with our Northwest values and will exacerbate this problem. Numerous public-safety and health issues have been documented in our city’s unsanctioned camps. And this proposed ordinance would not only take away the city’s ability to effectively address these critical issues, it would open even more public spaces — including school property and city parks — to tents and living structures that block access and create new hazards.
Implementing and enforcing this proposed ordinance would have enormous costs. The legislation calls for a wide variety of city resources, including housing, sustained intensive outreach, storing and safeguarding personal property, sanitation and garbage services. It also has significant legal implications on issues, such as compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, liability and issues of responsibility among various governing bodies. It would make it impossible for Seattle Parks and Recreation to effectively manage the scores of developed parks and major green spaces that already endure chronic homelessness. This ordinance would effectively open all of our park land to camping.
Our city’s leadership has taken laudable steps to meet the needs of the homeless while working to secure safe housing for them. It has consulted national experts, declared a state of emergency and funded innovative approaches, including directing the establishment of a 24-hour homeless navigation center modeled after a successful San Francisco pilot project that has helped hundreds of individuals move into stable, supportive housing.
The city has also announced interim steps for cleaning up encampments. These steps directly address many of the issues raised in the proposed ordinance, including more outreach to residents, monitoring from the city’s Office for Civil Rights and safe storage of residents’ belongings. Mayor Murray has appointed Seattle’s first cabinet-level director of homelessness, George Scarola, demonstrating the city’s commitment to coordinated action across departments to help our city’s unsheltered residents.
These are the right moves. We need to double-down on these efforts and proceed thoughtfully.
The Cleanup Protocol Task Force must have an opportunity to complete its crucial work. Its first meeting just took place on Wednesday. Let’s consider the new report and recommendations that the city just commissioned. We don’t know yet how the elements of the proposed ordinance align — or don’t — with best practices. Let’s evaluate how the interim measures are working.
We care about our community and everyone in it. We need balanced, compassionate regulations that keep everyone in our city safe and healthy. Compassion without a plan is no compassion when it comes to Seattle’s homeless.