Nothing could have summed up last night’s meeting of the mayor’s 18-member Unsanctioned Encampments Cleanup Protocols Task Force better, for me, than the moment when task force co-chair Sally Clark, at that very moment presiding over the meeting, “liked” the following tweet:
Yet that’s basically what the task force is expected, by the end of the month, to do: Come up with recommendations that will help determine when, how, and under what circumstances the city can remove people and their possessions from an unsanctioned encampment.
The ACLU and Columbia Legal Services arguably circumvented the task force last month, when they proposed their own legislation that would make it much harder to sweep unsanctioned encampments, a move that some on the task force view as a sign of urgency, and others as a provocation. As task force member (and Alliance for Pioneer Square director) Leslie Smith put it, the new proposal “is hurrying along the path, and I think that has given us either a greater sense of urgency to this group or a greater sense of hopelessness.”
I’ve been to two of the three task force meetings so far (there will be at least three more before the end of the month, but only one is likely to be as long as or longer than tonight’s), and the overwhelming sense is that no one quite knows why they’re there. The format so far has been: Public comment (this week, Magnolia resident/Neighborhood Safety Alliance representative Cindy Pierce expressed confusion at why the task force was meeting at all, given that there are plenty of shelter and treatment beds available: “I see a lot of money being spent and a pretty simple answer, so why do we continue to have these conversations?”), followed by official presentations, followed by a rushed hour or so of discussion that can sound an awful lot like serial grandstanding. By the time most task force members have said their piece, it’s 8:00, and there’s no time left to talk about recommendations, or solutions, or finding common ground.
For example: Committee members spent a lot of time at last week’s meeting interrogating Chris Potter from the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) about exactly what kind of notice the city currently gives encampment residents whom it plans to sweep, whether it provides outreach services to people living on their own, and whether the city is sufficiently tracking and collecting data on the homeless. Near the end of that meeting, NSA member Gretchen Taylor, a member of the task force, asked rhetorically, “Why are we even entertaining the idea of allowing people to camp wherever they want in our city?”
The discussion last night (which didn’t really get off the ground until about 7:15, after presentations by staffers from multiple city departments, the county, and the state department of transportation), initially seemed like it would be another re-litigation of whether the city’s encampment policy should be changed at all.
But the meeting quickly took a turn for the ontological, when committee members started asking whether the task force could accomplish anything, given its limited time frame and the fact that the council was already considering legislation that would drastically change the city’s policy on encampment sweeps regardless of what the task force comes up with. “My take on tonight is, I have completely lost track [of] what the charge of this group is, and I think this group may have lost track of that” too, Smith said. Eisinger, who initially declined the mayor’s invitation to serve on the task force, added, “I’m disappointed at how this task force is being used… [and] I find it deeply frustrating to be asked to participate in a process in which … this group of people, who have given their time to serve, do not have the opportunity to participate.”
Chloe Gale, co-director of Evergreen Treatment Services’ REACH outreach program, tried to refocus the conversation. “We’ve heard really great stories [in these meetings], but we do not have the resources here at this table to answer those [bigger] questions” about homelessness, Gale said. “To me, it boils down to, ‘When do we move somebody?’ That’s what we do have to deal with.” But will they? We’ll know by the end of the month.
While the mayor’s meetings are winding up, the council is moving forward with parallel proposals to deal with encampments: The ACLU legislation, which got assigned to council member Sally Bagshaw’s human services committee last Tuesday, and a set of protocols for clearing the last remaining residents of the Jungle, which moved out of committee by a 4-2 vote on Wednesday afternoon.
Tim Burgess voted “no” on the ACLU legislation, and Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant said no to the protocols for clearing the greenbelt, which will entail telling the 100 or so people remaining there that they have to leave. “Every effort will be made to achieve voluntary compliance with these police orders and every individual circumstance will be evaluated based on the input and experience of outreach workers,” the plan says bluntly. Many of the people who were living in the Jungle encampments have now relocated to another temporary site on Airport Way, which began as an unsanctioned encampment and is now a tacitly sanctioned one; many others remain unaccounted for.
Jeff Lilley, head of the Union Gospel Mission (the agency charged with conducting outreach during the Jungle clearout), implied strongly during the meeting that there are more than enough shelter and treatment beds for everyone who needs one; the problem is convincing people who “have to be told” that living outside isn’t their best option to take them. O’Brien and Sawant were skeptical of that claim, and O’Brien noted that, extrapolating from UGM’s own numbers, about 200 people simply moved on from the Jungle without being connected to any kind of housing or services whatsoever. But Lilley countered that some of those people were “transients”—people who drifted here from somewhere else, and may have gone back there—and that many were not really homeless to begin with. “You literally lost some of the population that was just there to sell and deal drugs,” he said.
Near the end of the meeting, Sawant posed a question I asked on Twitter: Will all the “42 available treatment beds” UGM says it has lying unused require participation in an explicitly Christian program? After all, a recovery program that requires participants to pray to Jesus isn’t really inclusive—nor can it be publicly funded under the separation of church and state. (UGM operates largely outside the city and county homeless service system for that very reason). Lilley said UGM’s shelter does not require church participation, but their year-long treatment program requires commitment to Christianity, including daily Bible study and lessons in “how to live with self-worth and self-respect through the power of Christ.”
The Jungle cleanup protocols go the full council next Monday, where they’ll almost certainly be approved.