Next week, the Seattle City Council is going to vote on a bill to legalize three new homeless encampments in the city. There is still one big question lingering about whether they should be allowed in residential areas—more about the status of that effort right here—but everything seems to indicate that the basic bill allowing new encampments will pass. Maybe even unanimously.
That’s great. But let’s not let the council off the hook for how they fucked this up last time they had the chance to do the right thing. Two years ago, Council Member Nick Licata proposed allowing tent encampments (in nonresidential areas, by the way) and he lost that effort in a 5-4 vote.
Three of those “no” votes on the council back in 2013 were Sally Clark, Tom Rasmussen, and Jean Godden. (The other two were Tim Burgess, who's since shifted his position on encampments, and Richard Conlin, who’s since been replaced by encampment supporter Kshama Sawant.)
Now check out this Seattle Channel video from last month in which Clark, Rasmussen, and Godden are all a-okay with Mayor Ed Murray’s plan to allow encampments. Because, you know, they’re a safer alternative to sleeping on the street while we try to find more permanent long-term solutions to homelessness. (Kind of like The Stranger has been saying for at least the last two years.)
Yes, politicians flip-flop. But this is the kind of flip-flop that, had it occurred earlier—or if it never had to happen at all—could have made a big difference in the lives of homeless people in Seattle. Hell, it might have even saved the lives of some homeless people in Seattle.
At least 45 homeless people died “outside or by violence” in 2014, and another 16 have died so far in 2015, according to Women in Black, a project of the nonprofit WHEEL to hold vigils recognizing the deaths of homeless people. There's no guarantee regulated encampments would have prevented those deaths, but encampments are one alternative for people who’d otherwise be sleeping on the street, under bridges, and in dangerous illegal encampments. They are safer than those options and they provide a social setting during a time that is so incredibly isolating.
So, what has changed for these council members? Council President Tim Burgess told me earlier this year that the mayor's support of legislation can be a "significant factor" in building support for it. But back in 2013, then-mayor Mike McGinn supported Licata's plan, and it still failed. Blame the poisoned council/mayor relationship that existed back then, I guess?
Now, in this recent Seattle Channel interview, Clark says the rising numbers of homeless people this year helped change her mind.
Godden calls this year’s bill “an improvement” over Licata’s bill and then kind of explains that that’s because it includes a requirement that camps have access to social services and gather demographic data, though she mostly avoids explaining her change of heart.
And Rasmussen says he thinks the mayor’s plan has “more accountability” measures than Licata’s proposal in 2013 because of the access to social services.
“It’s only temporary,” Rasmussen says, “but it’s better than people living under the bridges and in front of doorways. So, I think that we have to do what we can to help people.”
You don’t say, Tom?
The vote is scheduled for the council's 2 p.m. meeting Monday.