At a press conference Thursday evening, flanked by council members Tim Burgess, Sally Bagshaw, and Debora Juarez, Mayor Ed Murray announced that he planned to propose legislation authorizing four new sanctioned encampments for unsheltered homeless people in the city—three with strict rules, including a sobriety requirement, and one “low-barrier” encampment where people could show up drunk or high; additional funds for private contractors and nonprofits to create more shelter space for the city’s estimated 3,000 homeless people, and plans for trash cleanup, needle pickups, and to make showers available at some parks and public pools. (Notably, he proposed adding 10 new sharps disposal containers across the city; a more effective proposal might be to put one in every library and public building.)
That was the carrot. The stick is that Murray’s proposal will ban all camping in public parks, including not just the “active” areas that all sides in this debate have long agreed are unsuitable for campers, but remote and unimproved areas as well. “When it comes to sidewalks and parks, people have been removed and will continue to be removed, period,” Murray said. “We know it is just unacceptable to camp. We can’t have people in our parks, we can’t have people on our sidewalks, we can’t have people on school property or in areas where they’re at risk—either the homeless or other people.”
People in unauthorized encampments that are not in parks will be directed to any available shelter beds as they are now, but “if we do not have enough capacity, we will not be moving these people,” Murray said. He also acknowledged that many people prefer not to stay in shelters, which segregate clients by gender, require them to line up at night and be out by 6 or 7 in the morning, and which can be dangerous, dirty, and frightening places.
Murray’s line in the sand around parks will no doubt be reassuring to neighborhood activists who have bombarded council members and the mayor’s office in recent days with petitions, mass emails, and phone calls urging them to reject a proposal drafted by the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services and sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien, which would allow homeless people to stay in unimproved areas of parks. Perhaps channeling some of their talking points, the mayor said tonight that for many elderly people on fixed incomes, community centers in parks are “the only place to socialize and recreate,” and that the same is true for many poor families. Homeless people in tents, the mayor was saying, prevent families from using parks and senior citizens from using community centers.
Murray emphasized stepped-up outreach to people living outdoors. He said his plan would double the city’s “outreach capacity” and create “a citywide group of outreach teams that will work in coordination with police and cleanup crews to connect those individuals with services … particularly those with substance abuse.” It’s worth noting, however, that the city’s “outreach” so far has typically preceded sweeps, so people living in encampments might understandably not trust city workers who show up, hand extended, saying they’re there to help.
Murray’s announcement essentially circumvents Burgess’ and O’Brien’s competing proposals, which Bagshaw said she would put on the back burner until after the budget process and the Thanksgiving recess. But expect some heated discussion on this tomorrow morning at 9:30, when Bagshaw’s health and human services committee will meet to discuss the encampment legislation and the mayor’s alternative proposal, which he’ll officially send to the council next week.
Ultimately, Murray repeated several times tonight, the city can’t solve its homelessness problem alone; it needs funding from the federal government, which has not been especially forthcoming. If the windstorm that’s expected to hit Seattle this weekend gets as bad as the 1962 Columbus Day storm that killed 46 people, Murray said, “I’ll declare a state of emergency and federal and state funds will show up.” But for the homelessness state of emergency, which kills some 60 people every year, Seattle is on its own, Murray said.
“We as a city do not have the resources to do this ourselves. If we want more capacity or more shelter, we need our partners to step up.
“These are not the solutions. This is not a model. This is an attempt to provide some shelter and some services until we can truly transform our system.”