When passengers step off the ferries from Bremerton and Bainbridge Island and head into downtown Seattle, homelessness is just about the first thing they see.
People sleep every night on the Marion Street pedestrian bridge, a narrow span that connects the Seattle ferry terminal at Colman Dock with First Avenue. Many camp right under the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which runs above the middle section of the bridge.
With traffic roaring overhead, the spot isn’t peaceful. But the number of campers has grown since last summer, according to ferry commuters who hustle past twice a day.
Pedestrians almost had to tiptoe through on a recent chilly morning, picking their way past at least six people dozing under tarps and sleeping bags.
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“It bothers me because it’s very sad and unfortunate,” said Margo Dannemiller, 48, a Bainbridge Island-Seattle commuter. “They’re lighting fires in there. They’re urinating and defecating. It’s unpleasant, but mostly I just wish they had another option.”
Just that — another option for people sleeping outside — is what Seattle Mayor Ed Murray had in mind Wednesday as he proposed new legislation on tent cities.
With homelessness and illegal camping a growing concern in Seattle and across the region, Murray is asking the City Council to authorize and regulate up to three additional tent cities, potentially on city property.
“Permitted encampments are not, in my view, a long-term strategy to end homelessness,” the mayor said at a news conference, noting that the city will fund an additional 50 shelter beds at the King County Administration Building for the remainder of the winter.
“But organized encampments have less impact on our neighborhoods and provide a safer environment than what we see on our streets today,” he said.
Murray promised last month to present the council with a bill in January that would “make a limited number of unused, vacant lots on private and public land in nonresidential areas available for encampments, not including city parks.”
He had more details Wednesday. The three new sites would need to be within a half-mile of a transit stop and at least one mile from each other.
Seattle wouldn’t run the tent cities. It would issue 12-month permits to social-service organizations, which would manage the tent cities.
Murray said he decided to take action after hearing from his Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness, a volunteer panel convened in October and dominated by representatives from social-service organizations.
Increasing the number of authorized encampments in Seattle was among several recommendations the panel brought back to the mayor in December.
Seattle will spend more than $37 million on homeless services this year, Murray said, calling the outlay the nation’s third-largest after New York City and Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, last January’s One Night Count of people sleeping on the streets and in vehicles was more than 2,300 in Seattle, the mayor noted. Throughout King County, the tally was more than 3,100. The 2013 numbers were much lower: 1,989 and 2,736, respectively.
Performed by volunteers over just a few hours once a year, the count isn’t scientific. But the 2015 edition is next week, and Murray is expecting more people will be counted, he said.
“We are a very generous city that currently funds over 1,700 shelter beds,” he said. “But each night people are turned away from a warm bed due to lack of capacity.”
The task force recommended that the city consider authorizing new tent cities on sites in all land-use zones, but the mayor’s bill would limit the sites to nonresidential zones.
The panel suggested the city authorize an additional seven encampments serving about 100 people each, rather than three.
Murray said he arrived at the number three based on “our sense of how many organizations might be willing to take this on and our sense of the available property.”
The panel advised barring people under 18 from authorized tent cities, a provision Murray agrees with.
There are currently a handful of authorized encampments in Seattle. They tend to be located on sites connected with religious institutions, which are allowed to host tent cities with few restrictions. Encampments elsewhere must obtain temporary-use permits, which aren’t tailored for tent cities and which expire after just a few months.
The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to Seattle. There are tent cities in the suburbs, and the Metropolitan King County Council last month approved legislation allowing encampments to operate in the county’s unincorporated areas for another 10 years.
Murray’s proposed legislation builds on a similar bill, sponsored by Councilmember Nick Licata, which the council narrowly voted down in 2013. The mayor said his version includes additional requirements for the operators of tent cities.
The organizations would have to provide access to services aimed at moving clients into permanent housing and help the city collect data about clients. They also would be required to obtain liability insurance and engage in community outreach before applying for a permit.
Four of the nine City Council members flanked Murray as he announced the bill: Licata, Bruce Harrell, Mike O’Brien and Sally Bagshaw.
The proposed legislation will stir controversy, as it did in 2013, O’Brien said.
Council President Tim Burgess, who voted against Licata’s bill, said he remains skeptical.
“Encampments are not a solution to homelessness and are not a best practice,” Burgess said. “The federal government and its experts frown on them.”
Pushing back against the argument that extensive services exacerbate Seattle’s homelessness problem by attracting needy people from across the country, Murray said he’s been told that 80 percent of people without homes in the city hail from King County.
David Lawrence is one of those who isn’t local. The 28-year-old Florida native, who sleeps on the Marion Street pedestrian bridge, arrived in Seattle about five months ago.
“I don’t like shelters,” he said. “They stink, and they’re kind of loud. Not very sanitary.”
The Seattle Department of Transportation has received complaints about campers on the bridge, a spokesman said. The Seattle Human Services Department has dispatched outreach workers to the spot 17 times over the past few months, said a spokeswoman.
Lawrence likes the bridge because, with so many people passing by, it feels safe. He and a friend slept out in the open on a recent night, not under the viaduct.
“We used to sleep there,” he said. “But it just got too crowded.”
Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or firstname.lastname@example.org