The director of the department’s Office for Access to Justice said the proposal would be consistent with constitutional principles and DOJ’s position that homeless people shouldn’t be criminalized.

Share story

The U.S. Department of Justice weighed in Thursday to support a controversial homeless-camping ordinance the Seattle City Council is considering.

But Mayor Ed Murray said in a news conference he plans to send his own proposal for homeless-camping changes to the council next week.

In a letter to council members, the director of the department’s Office for Access to Justice, Lisa Foster, said the proposed ordinance would be consistent with constitutional principles and the department’s position that people experiencing homelessness shouldn’t be criminalized.

She was responding to a request for comment from Councilmembers Mike O’Brien, Lisa Herbold, Rob Johnson and Kshama Sawant.

The details of the ordinance have been in flux for several weeks and remain so, with the council’s human-services committee set to discuss potential changes Friday.

The thrust of the ordinance, as O’Brien introduced it last month, would be to give new protections to campers on city property by adding new requirements for when and how officials would be able to evict them and clear their camps away. In some cases, the city would need to offer campers housing before being allowed to sweep a site.

Proponents such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia Legal Services — groups that helped write the draft of the ordinance that Foster’s office reviewed — say Seattle’s sweeps of unauthorized encampments are inhumane and ineffective.

Opponents say the council shouldn’t make it easier for people to camp in public.

Murray told reporters Thursday his proposal will keep sidewalks and parks completely off-limits for camping but will prohibit sweeps in other areas if the city can’t offer campers a “reasonable alternative.”

He said the proposal will include opening up four more authorized encampments with support from the city, plus more garbage and needle collection, and more outreach to campers. Murray said one of those camps would have low barriers to entry.

The mayor didn’t immediately provide details on his proposal in writing.

“We have long observed that for many homeless people, finding a safe and legal place to sleep can be difficult or even impossible,” Foster’s letter says.

“Accordingly, the department has long encouraged cities to adopt ordinances that protect the constitutional rights of persons experiencing homelessness while attempting to implement policies that address legitimate public health and safety concerns. Without question, the bill is consistent with the constitutional principles the department has previously articulated.”

The Justice Department has held that if someone has nowhere else to go, the enforcement of an anti-camping law against them criminalizes them, the letter says.

That doesn’t mean the department endorses “allowing unfettered encampments,” the letter says. It means “the constitutional rights of people experiencing homelessness should be viewed as a starting point in crafting appropriate policy responses.”