The Seattle City Council is considering new regulations for unauthorized homeless encampments. What’s in the latest drafts of the controversial ordinance? We answer some questions.
Seattle City Council members say they’ve been slammed with thousands of emails and phone calls in recent weeks from constituents weighing in on an ordinance that would create new protections for homeless campers on city property.
Debate over the bill initially proposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Columbia Legal Services and other groups that advocate for the homeless could come to a head Friday when a council committee meets to discuss it again.
Seattle has carried out hundreds of camper evictions, also called sweeps or cleanups, since Mayor Ed Murray called a homelessness state of emergency last year.
Though Murray has sought to improve outreach to campers, The Seattle Times in August documented bureaucratic failures, chaotic evictions and lost belongings.
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The advocacy groups and their supporters say the sweeps are inhumane, ineffective and should be curbed. They say vulnerable people are being chased from site to site.
But the mayor, Councilmember Tim Burgess and other opponents have warned that the ordinance could inappropriately open some parkland and sidewalks to camping. More than 17,000 people have signed an online petition asking the council to shelve the plan.
Discussions between council members have spawned suggested changes in the legislation, and more tweaks are likely. But the ordinance remains in play.
What would the ordinance change? Would it create chaos in a city already teeming with tents or give people the time and space they need to get back on their feet?
To answer some questions, we took a close look at the latest draft of the ordinance made public by Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who is sponsoring the bill.
(Note: Late Wednesday, human-services-committee chair Sally Bagshaw released a new draft of her own, which differs from O’Brien’s in several respects.)
Q: What does existing Seattle law say about camping?
A: Existing city law bans camping in parks and sitting or lying on sidewalks during the daytime in certain areas — neighborhood business zones and downtown Seattle.
Religious institutions can host homeless encampments with few restrictions, and private-property owners can host encampments after obtaining temporary permits.
Murray and the council last year authorized three encampments to operate with city support.
Q: How does Seattle now carry out cleanups of unauthorized encampments?
A: For sites with three or more tents or other structures, existing protocols require the city to provide at least 72 hours’ notice before an eviction. They require outreach workers to connect campers with shelter beds or other services during the cleanups.
The mayor in August tweaked the protocols: A representative from the Seattle Office for Civil Rights is now supposed to monitor each cleanup, with outreach beforehand.
Q: How would the proposed ordinance categorize various camping situations?
A:Some sites would be categorized as “unsafe.” Those would be sites posing an “imminent danger of harm” to people living there or to the general public. For example, a right of way in an industrial neighborhood might be considered unsafe for campers.
Other sites would be categorized as “unsuitable.” Those would be sites where camping would impede a specific public use. For example, developed areas in parks, such as ballfields, and sidewalks in front of homes would be considered unsuitable.
Still other sites would be categorized as having “hazardous conditions.” Those would be sites where something other than the location would pose an imminent harm. For example, piles of garbage with used needles could make a site hazardous.
Lastly, some sites would be categorized as neither unsafe nor unsuitable. An earlier draft of the ordinance listed some examples: “greenbelts, portions of unimproved city land, safe spaces under certain overpasses …”
Those examples don’t appear in O’Brien’s latest draft, but it’s likely that sites such as undeveloped areas of parks could be considered neither unsafe nor unsuitable.
Police officers and firefighters would be allowed to respond to criminal conduct and emergencies at all sites the same way they do now, with no new restrictions.
Q: What would the ordinance require to remove campers from each kind of site?
A:While sweeping an unsafe or unsuitable site, the city would be required to inform all people staying there about the reason for the eviction, provide personalized outreach and make available a better, nearby site for the campers to move to.
When the ordinance was introduced, it required the city to provide 48 hours’ notice before sweeping an unsafe or unsuitable site. That’s not in O’Brien’s latest draft, which says the city would be able to take action immediately.
Before sweeping a hazardous site, the city would be required to provide campers with 72 hours of access to basic garbage, sanitation and harm-reduction services, including the collection of garbage bags and containers and the disposal of sharps.
The city would need to provide campers with a “meaningful opportunity” to resolve the hazard, which could entail providing gloves, rodent traps and portable toilets.
For sites with hazards not resolved in 72 hours, the city would need to follow up with each camper and provide an additional 48 hours’ notice before sweeping the site. Bagshaw’s draft would require no additional notice.
Before sweeping a site considered neither unsafe nor unsuitable, the city would need to provide outreach for 30 days and offer adequate housing — space where a person can live and store belongings on an ongoing, long-term basis, day or night.
The housing would need to be accessible to a person regardless of criminal background, treatment status, ability to show identification, household composition, pets, physical or mental limitations and substance-abuse disorders.
Q: How would Bagshaw’s draft define and deal with sites differently?
A: Her version would categorize all parks, planting strips and other public rights of way, including sidewalks, as unsuitable sites — unless specifically authorized by the city during the ordinance’s rule-making process. And Bagshaw’s version would require only 72 hours’ notice, rather than 30 days, for sites neither unsafe nor unsuitable.
But unlike O’Brien’s, it would require the city to quickly set up enough authorized encampments to accommodate everyone living outside.
Q: Would camping be allowed on public-school property?
A: O’Brien’s latest draft says the ordinance wouldn’t apply to property owned by public schools and colleges.
Q: What does the ordinance have to say about garbage generated by campers?
A: The city would be required to provide basic garbage and sanitation services upon request at encampments of more than five people.
Q: What would the ordinance’s notice requirements entail?
A: For any encampment site, notice would need to include the specific date and time of the cleanup, an explanation of the cleanup, information about where and how to retrieve personal property, and contact information for the program providing outreach.
Notice would need to be provided in languages likely to be spoken by campers and through methods capable of being understood by people with physical and mental disabilities. And notice would need to be posted on every tent or structure at the site.
Q: What would the ordinance require, in terms of campers’ belongings?
A: For campers present during cleanups but with no ability to move their belongings right away, the ordinance would require the city to move the belongings to a better site nearby and keep them there for 24 hours.
For campers not present, the city would be required to photograph, catalog and store for 60 days all belongings except weapons, contraband and contaminated items.
The city’s storage location would need to be accessible by public transportation and have extended hours. Information about the stored items would need to be searchable by computer and by calling the city.
Campers wouldn’t need to show photo ID to retrieve their belongings. Within 24 hours, someone from the city would need to return to the site to give any campers there information about their belongings. Information would need to be posted, as well.
Q: How would the city be penalized for violating the requirements of the ordinance?
A: The city would be required to pay a penalty of $50 per violation to each affected camper. The civil-rights office would be in charge of enforcing the ordinance. Bagshaw’s draft includes no such penalty provision.
Q: What would the ordinance’s sunset clause do?
A: The ordinance would expire after two years unless extended by the council.
Q: Why do opponents say the ordinance would hurt Seattle? What would happen?
A: Burgess and other opponents say people shouldn’t be living outdoors. By designating only some sites as unsafe and unsuitable, the city would be effectively sanctioning camping on the other sites, they say.
Burgess says the council is wasting time working on a new camping policy. Instead, the council should be working to improve Seattle’s homeless-services system, he says.
The opponents, including Murray’s department directors, say the requirements are onerous. They say the city would have trouble meeting the requirements and therefore might be unable to carry out cleanups.
They expect campers would remain for long periods in undeveloped park areas, and they worry the ordinance would attract homeless people from elsewhere to Seattle.
Q: Why do proponents say the ordinance would help Seattle?
They say the existing protocols aren’t helping: Cleanup crews sometimes show up exactly 72 hours after the city provides notice but also sometimes arrive weeks later.
Campers may return from work or appointments to see all of their belongings gone. More often than not, campers end up returning to sites that have already been swept.
The proponents say the council doesn’t need to choose between working on a new camping policy and on long-term change: The council can multitask.
They say more people would be able to move into housing if the city let campers stay in certain areas and get help rather than repeatedly disrupting their lives.