Tim Burgess. Photo via Seattle Channel.

Tim Burgess Draws a Line in the Sand on Homeless Encampments

He opposes a bill to only allow Seattle to remove campers if there’s somewhere else for them to live.

Tim Burgess doesn’t like unauthorized homeless encampments. No one does, of course, but whereas some other Seattle City Council members acknowledge that those camps are sometimes a homeless person’s least-bad option, Burgess believes they are harmful, period. “Nothing in these ad hoc encampments helps those individuals” living in them, he says.

That’s why he opposes Mike O’Brien’s bill to limit homeless encampment evictions to cases where the city can offer housing or an alternative campsite—in effect, only allowing the city to evict homeless campers if there’s somewhere else for them to live. In a blogpost published Tuesday, Burgess made his case against O’Brien’s bill, claiming it would create “a new legal right to camp in the city” and “increase public safety problems and make our neighborhoods less safe.

“Look around our great city and ask yourself whether you like what’s been happening even before this new right to camp has been established,” Burgess wrote. “Tents along our roadways and in our parks. Trash piling high in our greenbelts, in our neighborhoods and along Interstate 5.” Should O’Brien’s bill become law, he wrote, these problems will become worse.

Next week the council’s Human Services and Public Health Committee will hold a special meeting and possibly vote on O’Brien’s bill, which is simple in essence but complicated in detail. Essentially, the bill would zone the city into areas where unauthorized encampments are or aren’t tolerated. Locations where camping is especially dangerous (like a freeway ledge) or “substantially impedes” some “specific public use” (like a sports field) would be verboten. (A proposed amendment would specifically include improved areas of City parks and public sidewalks in front of homes and businesses as “per se unsuitable.”) In order to evict camps from unsafe or unsuitable locations, the bill would require the city to direct campers to a nearby alternative site, with 48 hours notice. Unauthorized camps that aren’t causing any problems can’t be evicted until Seattle can provide “adequate and [immediately] accessible” housing, and then only with 30 days notice. The bill also makes Seattle liable for $250 plus damages for campers who get wrongly evicted. Currently, eviction crews routinely break city rules designed to protect campers.

O’Brien and homeless advocates sees the bill as a way to rationally regulate the unauthorized homeless encampments which, despite endless sweeps, continue to exist all over Seattle. If they can’t eliminate the camps, at least they can direct them to more convenient locations. “If we say nowhere in the city is sanctioned and all [locations are] equally bad and we’re just going to rotate through the city, dislocate people on a systematic basis and tell them ‘You can’t be here’—I don’t know what that achieves,” O’Brien says.

The legislation has found some support from the council, with Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant and Rob Johnson signed on as co-sponsors. But as is often the case with homeless policy, one person’s common sense is another’s crazy. While Burgess supports increasing the number of city-authorized encampments (currently three), he’s unequivocally opposed to tolerating unauthorized camps. Instead of getting “distracted” by O’Brien’s bill, Burgess says, the council should focus on implementing a consultant’s recommendation (summarized in a report called “Pathways Home”) to concentrate on getting homeless people into shelters and housing. “All of our efforts, energy, resources and time should be spent on Pathways Home and fixing our system today to actually solve homelessness,” Burgess says, “not perpetuate it. The camping bill perpetuates homelessness. It doesn’t move one person into housing.”

The Pathways recommendations (which were informed by consultant Barbara Poppe’s report) boil down to the idea that Seattle can harness data and managerial efficiency to end unsheltered homelessness in one-and-a-half years and all homelessness within five years. Specifically, Seattle should clear the “bottleneck” of long-term stayers in emergency shelters, then use that newly-functional shelter system to funnel the homeless back into housing. Homeless advocates have criticized the report for ignoring both systemic causes of homelessness (like racism or wealth disparity) and the question of how to keep homeless people alive in the interim until housing gets built and shelters get fixed. “They’re deluded if they think they can get increased efficiency to deliver” a solution to all homelessness within five years, Real Change founder Tim Harris said in September. “There’s only so much blood you can squeeze from a stone.”

Burgess, on the other hand, believes in Pathway’s promise. “I recognize that’s a pretty bold claim,” he says. “I hope it’s true. But we’ve just wasted four weeks talking about this encampment legislation when we could have been focused on Pathways Home. How do we accelerate that?”

Four weeks wasted? O’Brien doesn’t think so. For him, the city’s current practice of herding homeless camps is the real waste. “We’re chasing people from point A to point B, and then a day later back from point B to point A. We’re spending a bunch of our time and resources…on a system that’s broken,” he says. “So let’s stop that.” Instead, he says, “we need to identify places where folks shouldn’t be and where folks are allowed to be as an interim measure.” In other words, Seattle policy should make up its mind about where the roughly 3,000 people camping in our city are allowed to camp. Eliminate that distraction, and concentrating on long-term solutions becomes easier.

In practice, O’Brien says, the law would look something like this: suppose someone is camping in the dugout of a public baseball field that’s scheduled for a game. Clearly, this is impeding public use, and city workers should say something like “Hey, you can’t be here” to the camper, says O’Brien. “Come on off to the side, the kids are going to play the field, and let’s talk about where you can be. But let’s get you out of there.” The goal of the legislation is not to give people a right to camp wherever they want, he says, but give them a right to camp somewhere if adequate and accessible housing isn’t available.

I repeatedly asked Burgess what we should do in the short-term with people who can’t or won’t go into shelters or authorized encampments. He did not have an answer, repeatedly responding that he does not support a “right to camp” in Seattle. He also said this: “We should focus our cleanup efforts—sweeps, whatever you want to call it—on those encampments that are truly creating a public safety, public health problem. An immediate problem, where there’s violence for example.”

It sounds like you’re describing the advocate bill.

“No,” he said. “No. The advocate bill says you can camp on public property. It may be narrowed through amendments to city property. And that includes unimproved areas of parks and sidewalks unless they’re in front of homes or commercial businesses. Why would we do that? Why would the city create a right to camp like that?”

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