Murray: No More Sweeps At Homeless Camps That Don’t Cause Problems

This morning, council meets on a bill that could nail down that promise.

It’s been quite a week for Seattle’s homeless advocates. On Tuesday—four days before a potentially historic storm, as it turns out—Mayor Ed Murray finally made good on his months-old vow to fully clear the underside of the I-5 highway of homeless encampments. During that eviction of the Jungle, police shot and killed a man they say was attacking another man with a knife.

Thursday, the Department of Justice issued a letter endorsing legislation sponsored by Mike O’Brien and other city councilmembers that would only allow homeless encampments to be evicted if there is somewhere else for campers to go. (On Friday morning, the letter’s author, Lisa Foster, walked that back with an email to mayoral stafff saying that “The Department of Justice does not endorse [O’Brien’s bill]. Rather the letter was intended only to state that the Ordinance was consistent with the Constitutional principles the Department articulated in Bell v. Boise.”)

Later that day, Murray, joined by councilmembers Sally Bagshaw, Tim Burgess and Debora Juarez, announced that the city will open four more authorized homeless encampments and will no longer evict homeless encampments that aren’t causing problems. As mayoral council Ian Warner told the council later, “For all removals where 72 hour notice is required, removals will not occur unless alternative shelter or authorized outdoor locations are available…This does not mean that camping will be allowed on parks, on sidewalks, or on school properties.”

Time for homeless advocates to pop the figurative champagne, right? Slow down. Here’s the context: Murray opposes O’Brien’s bill, and his announcement came the night before a morning council meeting that would feature debate on the bill. Also, the announcement came as a surprise to the homeless advocates who have been working with Bagshaw and O’Brien to refine O’Brien’s bill into something everyone can live with. “It’s odd to see Sally Bagshaw standing up there with the mayor,” says Yurij Rudensky of Columbia Legal Services, which along with the state ACLU drafted O’Brien’s original bill, “when she’s been leading the conversation…trying to arrive at compromise language for an ordinance.”

Rudensky is skeptical of Murray’s promise to lay off evictions. “What Murray offered tonight—until it’s on paper, we don’t know if it comports [with the Constitutional rights of homeless people]. I’m not saying we should distrust his words, but the devil’s in the details…We were under the impression that [legislative] talks were progressing and we were finding common ground. We had no indication that the mayor was working on any independent policy.”

This morning, Bagshaw and O’Brien will debate their respective versions; more on that below. Representatives of Murray’s office will attend the meeting and, presumably, argue against O’Brien’s version of the bill and for Bagshaw’s. Meanwhile, in a homeless encampment filled with about a hundred people displaced from the Jungle, this will be happening:

DoJ Endorses, Then Un-Endorses, O’Brien Bill

“The Department has long encouraged cities to adopt ordinances that protect the Constitutional rights of persons experiencing homelessness while attempting to implement policies that address legitimate public health and safety concerns,” writes Lisa Foster, director of the DoJ’s Office for Access to Justice, in her letter to O’Brien and cosponsors Lisa Herbold, Rob Johnson and Kshama Sawant. “Without question, this bill is consistent with the Constitutional principles the Department has previously articulated.”

That last bit is a reference to the DoJ’s statement of interest in Bell v. Boise last year. As we reported at the time, “Cities that prohibit public camping without offering adequate homeless shelter are violating the Constitution. That’s an argument that local homeless advocates have been making for a long time. Recently, they got a new ally: the Department of Justice.”

In the DoJ’s own words in their Bell v. Boise statement:

“If sufficient shelter space is unavailable…then it would be impossible for some homeless individuals to comply with these ordinances…In those circumstances enforcement of the ordinances amounts to the criminalization of homelessness, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”

Yurij Rudensky, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, says that in discussion of the city’s response to homelessness, “it’s been lost that peope’s constitutional rights are being systemically violated. Having the DoJ weigh in and say that the proposal comports with constitutional principles is an important message for a city that’s already under a DoJ decree” for police violence.

As noted above, Foster sent an email out this morning saying that the DoJ does not “endorse” O’Brien’s bill, even though that’s plainly what its letter to council does.

Bagshaw and O’Brien’s Competing Bills

In August, homeless advocates proposed a bill putting strict limits on encampment evictions. As originally introduced by city councilmember Mike O’Brien, the draft bill would have required at least 48 hours notice before relocating campers out from unsafe or unsuitable locations, created a $250-plus-damages liability for the city in cases of bad evictions, and applied to both campsites and car campers.

The bill has changed a lot since it was first introduced. After some tense Human Services and Public Safety committee meetings, a lot of sit-downs with advocates, business representatives and other stakeholders, O’Brien and HSPS chair Sally Bagshaw have each written an alternate, watered-down version of the bill.

O’Brien’s version is closer to homeless advocates’ original plan. Instead of getting 48 hours’ notice, camps in unsafe or unsuitable locations could be moved immediately to a “nearby, alternative public space owned or controlled by the City to camp.” Similar legislation on car campers would be punted to next year. The city’s liability would be reduced to $50. As in previous versions of the bill, both O’Brien’s and Bagshaw’s current versions would not allow camping in places that would “substantially impede” public use—for instance, in a ballfield at a public park.

Bagshaw’s version departs from advocates’ original vision more than O’Brien’s does. There’s no mention of car camper legislation, nor of any kind of financial liability on the city for bad evictions. It also makes it easier for the city to do sweeps: for example, while O’Brien’s version would require the city to offer “adequate and accessible housing” before sweeping encampments located at safe, suitable sites, Bagshaw’s version loosens that requirement by adding “or stable shelter.” Both versions of the bill would sunset after two years.

Bagshaw’s version of the bill is stronger than O’Brien’s in one respect, though: it mandates that the city establish as many authorized, agency-run encampments as it takes to shelter the roughly 3,000 people currently surviving outside in Seattle. In his announcement Thursday night, Murray promised to establish four more city-sanctioned encampments, at least some with lower barriers to entry (like sobriety requirements). That’s a significant and perhaps surprising step in the right direction given how much grief Murray and the council have gotten from cranky neighbors about the three authorized encampments that already exist, but it’s not nearly enough to shelter the thousands currently sleeping outside in Seattle. If Bagshaw’s most recent version becomes law, the city could need to authorize a dozen or more additional camps.

“Within 30 days of the effective date of this ordinance, the City shall set up additional sanctioned, or managed encampments or spaces where people can safely camp,” reads Bagshaw’s draft. “Such identified spaces and sites shall be numerous and large enough to accommodate the reasonably estimated unsheltered population in need of such outdoor living space.”

“There’s no question in our minds that ‘sweeping’ people without improved places to go makes things worse for everyone,” Bagshaw said in a statement after Murray’s announcement. “We must provide more safe spaces where people can stabilize and invest in coordinated care systems. This will not be done by a flip of the switch. My substitute bill puts us on a path to reduce harm to those who are homeless now, manage outdoor living spaces, coordinate services for people who need it, while providing for the health and safety of all of our neighborhoods.”

For his part, O’Brien says he’s frustrated by “myths and misinformation” which cast his bill as allowing any camping, anywhere, all the time. He’s referring in part to a recent blogpost in which Burgess wrote that “the proposed law establishes a new right to camp on public property across Seattle, including in our parks and greenbelts, and on sidewalks and planting strips.” Burgess’ post omits the fact that even in its original form, the legislation also establishes a right for the city to evict campers from parks, greenbelts, sidewalks, and planting strips, depending on the circumstances. Simply put, O’Brien’s bill—like Murray’s proposall—would not roust homeless encampments that aren’t causing trouble or impeding public use unless there’s somewhere to send them. The difference between O’Brien’s bill and Murray’s position is not whether some unauthorized homeless encampments in park-owned land would be tolerated; it’s how much to restrict the executive’s discretion about whether and when to evict them.

O’Brien is also referring to a pair of maps prepared by the executive department purporting to represent parks and sidewalks that could be open to encampments under O’Brien’s legislation. The maps, which were released to media, are gross exaggerations—implying, for example, that all parks would become protected homeless encampments. At the bottom of the maps are tiny disclaimers noting that they do not account for areas that would be unsuitable for camping and that there’s no warranty for the maps’ accuracy.

What will happen if your legislation gets squashed or gutted on its way through Council, councilmember O’Brien?

“I’m going to turn to the folks that won the day and say, ‘Alright, I tried to solve the problem. You didn’t like my solution. You guys come up with a solution,’” he says. “No, [my bill is] not perfect, and there’s things we haven’t figured out how to address. But it’s better than what we have now, today. I hope we don’t say, ‘We just need to step back and take a breath for three months and start over,’ because we have a system that’s failing us terribly.”

The Human Services and Public Health committee will meet to discuss O’Brien’s and Bagshaw’s respective versions of the bill at 9:30 a.m. today (Friday).

This post has been edited and updated.