I asked Seattle City Council president Sally Clark what she thinks of Nick Licata's bill expanding homeless encampments, and she said she'll wait to hear him out when the bill is presented and debated tomorrow afternoon before making up her mind. But when pressed, she told me she's content with the law as it currently stands; it only allows longer-term encampments on church-owned land. "I don’t see the need to go beyond that at this point," Clark said.
"The mayor has presented two options," Clark continued—the mayor sent her a letter in support of Licata's bill, as well as an alternate bill that would budget for an environmental review of Nickelsville's current site in West Seattle, with a view to making it healthier and safer long-term. "I tend to think there are probably more than two options."
Yeah, we know you do. (Clarkin' it™!) But what this legislation is trying to do is address an immediate need—a need current systems continue to fail.
At the heart of this issue is an ongoing debate: the idea that legal encampments represent a surrender to the inevitability of homelessness versus the idea that it's just smart policy to make existing and future encampments healthy and safe, which is best done by legitimizing them and giving them some access to resources. The Committee to End Homelessness in King County favors long-term housing solutions, which is great, and politicians tend to follow their lead. But there is also a dramatic need for emergency shelter. If Clark and others believe that the shelter system should be able to handle that on its own—an argument they've made for years—well, then, what's the plan?
As Nick Licata pointed out when I talked to him about his bill, "literally thousands of people are sleeping on the street," and they need somewhere to stay—right now. Real Change director Tim Harris, who supports the legislation, says tent cities "offer shelter and community to hundreds of people for dollars on the bed, something like $4 a night... To provide shelter in a self-managed tent city is a way of doing harm-reduction," he says. And so cheaply—"in times like this, that’s really attractive."
Clark's not as excited.
"My questions have to do, I guess, with the broader policy stance... Do we, as a city, really want to formalize encampments on a broader level as part of our response to homelessness?" Well, obviously Harris thinks so, and Licata, and the mayor, and Council Member Mike O'Brien, who's also signaled support for the bill.
What does Clark think we should do about the nearly 2,000 people counted sleeping on Seattle's streets this January, if not expand where they can legally camp? "We should make our shelter system meet those needs." Right, but how? She didn't offer specifics.
She insists she's not anti-encampment, she just thinks the legislation concerning church properties is enough. "I don’t think we’ve seen a lot of pressure that we’re out of church properties." And Nickelsville and SHARE don't support this legislation anyway, so it's not like the people it affects are going to break down her door.
Sources at city hall say Council Member Richard Conlin's opposed to the bill, but I haven't gotten a response from him. Council Member Tim Burgess's track record would point to likely opposition as well. We'll see how it plays out in the council chamber tomorrow afternoon. But anyone opposing this legislation damn well better have a concrete alternate solution, both to appease Nickelsville's neighbors and address the glaring holes in the safety net that make tent cities necessary in the first place. And I haven't seen that yet.