It is one of the most debated issues in Seattle politics: Should homeless encampments on public property be cleared, with residents forced to move, and if so, when?
The debate now could be moving, slowly, to outlying, unincorporated areas of King County.
A new proposal in the Metropolitan King County Council aims to create standards to govern when and how encampments should be removed and when they should be left. It requests County Executive Dow Constantine’s office to create such standards by the fall.
In Seattle, the issue of unsanctioned encampments is as tense and fraught as it’s ever been, after removals were largely paused during the pandemic and the number of tents increased by an estimated 50%. It is among the preeminent issues in this year’s mayoral campaign and it has inspired a proposed amendment to the city’s charter that will be on the November ballot.
Since 2008, Seattle has had rules governing when and how encampments should be removed. They were updated in 2017. Their enforcement remains contentious.
King County has no such standards and no agency responsible for removing encampments, although encampments in unincorporated areas are not as common as in Seattle and other cities.
The legislation, introduced by Councilmember Reagan Dunn, requests specific standards on when encampments in unincorporated King County should be cleared, including instances of unsanitary conditions, fire hazards, violence or blocking roads or sidewalks.
Dunn’s proposed standards are modeled after ones adopted in Portland this spring. Portland has long used a rubric to prioritize encampment removals, but updated that guidance in response to the increased pressure since the pandemic, similar to Seattle.
Dunn also asks for scenarios that would forbid encampment, such as if there’s not enough shelter space to offer residents.
And he asks for clarity about which county departments would be responsible for clearing encampments, and for procedures to notify encampment residents of an impending clearance and for storing property after a clearance.
Dunn, who is up for reelection this year and faces three serious challengers, said his proposal was not intended to “sweep homeless individuals” out of communities.
“People who are homeless, in my judgment, shouldn’t be ignored or left to live out on the streets,” Dunn said. “If there is shelter space available or housing, King County needs to be proactive about helping homeless folks.”
Dunn recently left the governing board for the Regional Homelessness Authority where he sometimes clashed with other members, especially those who represent current and formerly homeless people. The authority is tasked with bringing Seattle, county and suburban officials together on homelessness strategy.
He has continued to try to push King County on homeless encampment policy. In June, he wanted to condemn Seattle’s City Hall Park after a fatal stabbing, saying that the large homeless encampment there makes it a public safety hazard, and compel Constantine to purchase it and relocate the tent residents.
The proposal could come up for a vote in the Local Services Committee next month. It does not appear to have overwhelming support.
Constantine’s office said the proposal was, essentially, a distraction. They said they were focusing on getting people into the hotels that the county has recently purchased to use as shelters, as well as other new shelters recently funded by federal COVID-19 aid.
“These programs are working to bring around 1,300 people inside by winter,” Constantine spokesperson Chase Gallagher said. “This motion asks for a detailed report by the end of October, and preparing that report would divert staff from the vital work happening on the ground to provide shelter, housing and services, so we cannot support the motion as written at this time.”
Councilmember Joe McDermott expressed concerns that the proposal could overlap with the work that will be done by the newly created Regional Homelessness Authority.
Councilmember Girmay Zahilay asked about how the standards would be enforced.
“We have scenarios where some people living in encampments resist going into shelter,” Zahilay said, noting that some people prefer encampments to congregate shelters with no privacy. “Is it asking the executive and the sheriff’s office to arrest people and remove them forcibly?”
The legislation is silent on that, but Dunn said he doesn’t envision forcing people to be moved “unless there’s urgent criminal or public health situations.”