As the City of Seattle and Washington State Transportation Department face a lawsuit over how they clear homeless encampments, Seattle has released a draft of new rules for how it will clear those encampments in the future.
The long-promised draft rules are an update to what's known inside the city as the multi-departmental administrative rules on homeless encampment sweeps or "the MDAR." (Here's a good explainer on how the rules work and why they fail.)
This issue may feel disconnected from the constant barrage of worsening Trump news. In fact, the way Seattle treats people experiencing homelessness is fundamental to its being a safe and welcoming city fighting the Trump agenda. For Seattle to truly be a "sanctuary," it must also be a city that respects civil rights regardless of income level. That's the core question being asked by the two homeless people suing the city and state, and that should be addressed by how the city decides to treat people living outdoors.
At last count, about 4,500 people slept unsheltered in King County each night, the vast majority of them located in Seattle. (A new count was conducted Friday but the results won't be available until the spring.) Local officials have promised new types of shelter and new affordable housing, but have not received significant new funding from the state or feds, and the need continues to outstrip the response. New numbers released last week show that nearly 40,000 students across the state were homeless during the 2015-2016 school year, a 12 percent increase from the year before.
Today's rules include several significant changes to the existing MDAR, but are unlikely to satisfy homeless advocates.
Which camps get swept? While the old rules say camping on public property is a "threat to the public safety and health," they do not define how the city will prioritize which camps to clear. The new rules say city departments will enter all encampments into a city computer system and then prioritize those that are unsafe, hard to reach for emergency services, home to criminal activity beyond drug abuse, damaging to the environment, or close to schools or facilities for the elderly. The new rules also say the city will fence off and patrol up to 10 “emphasis areas” to prevent homeless people from returning to the areas.
How are homeless people notified? Before clearing an encampment, the city must offer 72 hours' notice to the people living there. The change in the new rules states that city officials must also provide a specific date within the following week when they will conduct the sweep. If the cleanup isn't done within a week, the city must issue another 72-hour notice. That's an effort to address complaints that when the city posts notice of a sweep, it's impossible to know when they're actually going to show up, which makes the whole process unpredictable for homeless people and can mean they aren't on site when authorities show up to clear their camp.
Where are they supposed to go? The rules say outreach workers must visit encampments and offer homeless people shelter or housing when forcing them to leave a "non-obstructing" encampment. That sounds good, but advocates for homeless people point to well-documented shortfalls in the existing shelter system that leads people to prefer to sleep outside. Given that, they argue, the city should allow some outdoor camping.
What happens to their stuff? After someone is forced to leave an encampment, the new rules outline a procedure for how the city should store their belongings. Previously, the city has stored personal property (defined as things worth more than $25) for 60 days, though homeless people have said they often lose important personal belongings. According to the new rules, the city will store personal property for 60 days and post a notice with information about when it was removed and where it can be retrieved. The city will deliver personal belongings or make them available at a location accessible by public transportation.
While the new rules may be an improvement, some advocates have argued the problem with the old rules was not just what they said, but that the city didn't always follow them. That's why last year a group of homeless service providers, public interest lawyers, and several city council members attempted to change the way the city does encampment sweeps by changing the law, rather than just these rules. The mayor and others fought that effort, which the council eventually abandoned. At the time, Council Member Mike O'Brien said he was awaiting the mayor's new proposed rules before deciding whether to try again to change the law.
"The bottom line for me [is that] what I can't do is for us to create a policy that makes us feel good but means the people sleeping outdoors are going to continue to be swept because they have nowhere to go where they won't be swept," O'Brien told me in October. "Then we're where we are now and... that's just unacceptable." I've reached out to O'Brien about the new rules and will update if I hear back.
Council Member Lisa Herbold, who has been outspoken about the shortcomings of the MDAR since before she was on council, said in an email the new rules included "big improvements," including the requirement to offer alternative shelter and the requirement to give notice of sweeps to all people sleeping outside, not just camps of three or more. Herbold says she's worried about possible inconsistencies in how various city departments prioritize which camps to clear.
Ann LoGerfo, an attorney at Columbia Legal Services who worked on the proposed ordinance last year, had a mixed reaction to today's news.
“It’s clear that there’s an attempt to bring some order to the chaos,” she said in an interview. LoGerfo praised the rules about notifying camps before cleanups. But the rules about offering people shelter or housing before they’re swept still don’t guarantee those who can't or won't use the existing shelter system a safe place to go. One version of the CLS-backed legislation introduced last year would have required the city to have available housing (not just overnight shelter) before forcing people to leave encampments unless those encampments were unsafe.
“Really if you’re going to be moving people and their things, the critical question is, is there a place to move them to?” LoGerfo said. “These procedures are much, much better, but there still seems to be a disconnect about where people are going to go.”
The off-limits “emphasis areas” could offer consistency for both homeless people and housed people about where camping is explicitly forbidden, LoGerfo said, but she’s wary of how big those areas will be.
“Are the exceptions going to swallow the rule?” she said. “Is everywhere going to be [considered] an immediate hazard or an obstruction? It’s really [about] what the city does on the ground.”
The city is accepting feedback on the draft rules through February 15 at firstname.lastname@example.org, and via City of Seattle Department of Finance and Administrative Services, Attention: Frances Samaniego, P.O. Box 94689, Seattle, WA 98124. The city will not hold a public hearing on the rules.