Advocates Propose Sweeping Reforms to Homeless Sweeps

A coalition including Real Change and Columbia Legal aims to rein in the mayor’s camp evictions.

Today, a group of homeless advocates proposed in an open letter to the mayor and city council a radically new policy governing the city’s “cleanups,” as Mayor Ed Murray calls them, of homeless encampments. The new policy would effectively end encampment evictions and instead require the city to either house campers or relocate them to a different site. It would also create monetary liability if the city wrongfully evicts or trashes a camp, and dramatically increase the time between notice and eviction.

The open letter’s signatories include representatives from the state ACLU, Columbia Legal Services, Real Change, the Public Defender Association, the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, and the Seattle Community Law Center. “It basically takes a housing first approach to encampments,” says Real Change founding director Tim Harris, referring to the policy of providing housing (or at least shelter, in this case) to homeless people without requiring them to get sober or get a job first. Rather than herding homeless people around the city, Harris says, the city ought to assist them in finding shelter, stability and community.

The city policy that currently governs evictions of unauthorized homeless encampments was written in 2008. Known as the Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules (MDAR), the policy has enabled the city to evict more than 400 homeless encampments since the mayor declared homelessness a civil state of emergency in November last year.

Though little known outside city government, the 20-page MDAR has had a profound influence on Seattle homeless policy. It is the origin of Seattle’s distinction between “camp” and “encampment” (the latter is 3+ tents). It subjectively defines “garbage” as “any item that in its present condition has no apparent utility.” It requires only 72 hours notice before evicting a homeless encampment from city property, and waives any notice requirement at locations that are frequently used as campsites. The MDAR claims that homeless encampments on city property are “a threat to the public safety and health,” though the document says nothing about how evicting them onto a different property will address that threat. An entire section of the policy is dedicated to contemplating all the ways the city is allowed to banish, ticket and arrest campers.

The new encampment policy councilmembers are introducing in the form of a council bill reads more like a U.N. resolution than a cleanup policy. It only allows the city to evict encampments under two conditions. One is if the campers turn down an offer of “adequate and accessible” and immediately available housing. The other is if the encampment is especially dangerous (say, on a ledge above the I-5), in which case the city has to direct them to a “nearby, alternative location.” In effect, the policy abolishes homeless encampment evictions.

The bill would also require thirty days’ notice before relocation, unless clearly defined “public safety and health emergency” criteria are met. In that case, campers get at least 48 hours notice. It would clarify the city’s notoriously uncharitable rules for storing and returning valuable property seized from encampments. If the city breaks these rules while evicting someone, Seattle’s liable to that evictee for $250 plus damages. The bill also tries to address concerns about the effects of an encampment on the surrounding neighborhood: “For the benefit of all City residents, the City has an interest in preventing the build-up of garbage, human waste, and other refuse at outdoor living spaces and other public spaces,” the bill draft reads. To this end, the bill requires the city to investigate complained-about sites for imminent public health or safety threats (like mounds of poop).

Harris says he’s got a five-councilmember majority committed to voting in favor of the bill; we haven’t yet been able to confirm that. Considering that the whole purpose of the legislation is to rein in the executive’s current reign of evictions (which we oppose), supporters may need a sixth vote to overcome a mayoral veto.

UPDATE: Councilmember Rob Johnson confirms that he will be a cosponsor of the bill.

Last week the mayor made some symbolic concessions to advocates, announcing that both a representative of the Office of Civil Rights and outreach workers must be present at cleanups. He also appointed George Scarola, a former community housing agency director and jack of many white-collar trades, to the newly formed cabinet position of homelessness czar.

Harris says of Scarola: “We could have done a lot worse.” Yet despite that lukewarm optimism, the Real Change founder makes it clear that he and other advocates are done playing Seattle Nice in a city where dozens of unsheltered homeless people die every year from violence, exposure and drug overdose. He acknowledges that their strategy is to use public pressure push this legislation through. As far as finding some kind of compromised middle ground with the mayor or more conservative (on homelessness) members of the council, Harris says, “We are not interested in going that route.”

Yurij Rudensky of Columbia Legal strikes a more conciliatory tone. He calls the mayor’s announcement last week “an invitation to a conversation, and we want to have that conversation through the legislative process.” And soon—before budget season begins mid-September. “The budget process is kind of all consuming in terms of time” for council and mayor, says Rudensky, and drags on through November. To go into yet another winter with the MDAR in place, he says, is “not acceptable.”

Council is currently on recess, and returns September 5. The bill will probably go through the Human Services and Public Health committee, chaired by Sally Bagshaw. That committee meets at 2 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month, meaning their next meeting will be at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 14.

UPDATE. Bagshaw reportedly says she’ll likely support a slightly modified version of the bill. PubliCola News reports she wrote in an email:

“I have been working closely with ACLU and SKCCH and mayor’s office et al to do multiple things simultaneously : 1) find safe places for people to be BEFORE removing them from an unsafe site, 2) providing Sani-cans [toilets] and garbage/recycling containers where people are located, 3) increasing supply of 24/7 shelters where people have lockers and access to services (I am working closely with church council for immediately reopening 200 beds) and 4) increasing supply of stable housing county wide.

“Housing First is the goal. The mayor and I are coordinating a stakeholder group to hammer out these policies with legislation to be passed before budget. Sweeps are making things worse for people involved and we must change the approach. I am certain that I have the votes to pass a slightly modified version (clarifying responsibilities) of SKCCH legislation and want input from stakeholders.”

This post has been updated.