The Seattle City Council voted this afternoon to kill a bill that would further legalize and regulate homeless encampments. Council Member Nick Licata, the bill's sponsor, hoped it could make encampments in the city safer and better organized—encampments like Nickelsville, which has been plagued by crime and neighborhood acrimony—by keeping them regulated, policed, and connected with social services.
Licata knew early in today's council meeting that the bill would fail—yet he pressed his case. "We know that there are thousands of people who can't get into shelters every night," he said. This bill creates "regulatory measures... to help these people stay safe." The measure would have allowed encampments, under certain conditions, to be permitted in nonresidential areas of the city for up to a year. The vote was 5–4, with Licata, Mike O'Brien, Sally Bagshaw, and Bruce Harrell voting in favor. The council's conservative majority opposed the measure on grounds that encampments are an inadequate solution to homelessness.
"It is just sad that the majority of the council can't wrap their head around the idea that encampments are a harm-reduction strategy and they save lives," said Tim Harris, director of Real Change, when I called him for comment. "They've had plenty of opportunity to understand that. They've heard it in five-part harmony from a whole bunch of different people. There is really no excuse for them to not pass this other than just cowardice."
But opponents repeated tired, illogical arguments that encampments are not sound policy and the city should spend its money on long-term housing instead (regulating encampments like this doesn't actually siphon money from housing funds). Council Member Jean Godden said "people deserve better." Tim Burgess said cities are retreating from encampments as a solution. Tom Rasmussen said, without a trace of irony, "We do care and we're doing all we can to help the homeless." Council Member Richard Conlin, wearing a sling from a bike accident this weekend, mostly complained about the problems with Nickelsville, ignoring other successful encampments in the region.
Whether you approve of encampments wholeheartedly or not, Licata replied to his colleagues, they are a necessary tool to address homelessness—and they're safer when they're legal. O'Brien echoed that, saying in response to his colleagues' gripes about Nickelsville—and this bill doesn't address any particular camp—that much of Nickelsville's problems seemed to stem from their very illegality.
Supporters had hoped to delay this vote until September, after the council had received more reports on the ongoing outreach to Nickelsville. That program, which the council authorized for $500,000, is slated to end with the removal of Nickelsville from its current site on September 1. The motion to hold the vote until then failed, which was an immediate sign to anyone tracking this issue that the bill would be voted down, too.
"I'm not sure why we're going forward with this," added Harrell. "It would have been nice had we been able to... see if the $500,000 had worked."
This council—and the city—keeps largely failing when it comes to addressing homelessness, which I've said before and I'll say again. It's exhausting. This vote wasn't a total surprise, but it sure was disappointing. Anti-encampment council members love to say "we can do better." Well, then do it. Find a way to house the thousands of people currently sleeping outdoors every night.
"These folks still exist," said O'Brien when it was clear the bill would fail. "They will be sleeping somewhere." Just, for now, under bridges and in greenways, not in organized, safe, legal, regulated encampments. Good going, guys.