City human services staff say they offer services when they evict homeless encampments of three or more people, but not always when they evict just one or two campers.
City human services staff say they offer services when they evict homeless encampments of three or more people, but not always when they evict just one or two campers. HG

Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council have agreed on how to spend a pot of emergency money to address the city's homelessness crisis, but the two sides remain divided on how the city is handling people sleeping outside.

At a committee meeting yesterday, council members voted to approve a spending plan for about $2.3 million in emergency money, part of a total of $7.3 million in one-time emergency funds. Despite agreeing to that spending plan, though, some council members remain concerned about the mayor's ongoing controversial sweeps of illegal tent encampments.

Yesterday's was the second three-hour meeting in less than a week to discuss the city's ongoing homelessness crisis and concerns about encampment sweeps has been a major theme. Last week, Council Member Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the council's human services committee, invited about 10 social service providers to council chambers. There, groups including the ACLU of Washington criticized the city's process of sweeping tent encampments.

At yesterday's meeting with mayoral staff, Council Members Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant drove the conversation back to that point. One of the main concerns from advocates has been about whether the city is really offering the advance notice and services it says it offers to homeless people sleeping outside in tents. City protocols require 72 hours of advance notice and certain outreach (like offering people shelter) when sweeping encampments of three people or more, but the protocols don't require that same notice and outreach for camps of just one or two people. It has been unclear just how much notice and referral to services the city has been giving people in smaller camps.

When Herbold put this issue to the mayor's public safety adviser, Scott Lindsay, he told her city staffers are offering outreach and advance notice to "almost all" camps of one or two tents, even though they're not required to. But, he hedged, "it really comes down to a resource question." Requiring advance notice and robust outreach at every single tent in the city would "operationally shut things down," Lindsay said. He also argued that the "potential to do outreach is greater when three or more people are at a site."

To Herbold, that's not the point.

"The goals, I think, of providing advance notice are not just to have successful outreach," she said. "It's because everyone is entitled to advance notice before the structure that they're calling their home is removed."

Lindsay, staff from the city's Human Services Department, and Council Member Tim Burgess have argued that encampment sweeps are necessary because some camps pose public health or public safety risks. Leaving dangerous camps in place, they say, is inhumane.

"Let's see where the humanity has been missing," Council Member Kshama Sawant said in response to that argument. "The humanity has been missing for the most part towards homeless people. So, unless you're going to tell me that every single one of these cleanups that you have listed was absolutely because of grave dangers to human life, I do not accept this general idea—abstract idea—that, well, there are concerns to public safety [and] that is why we have to do cleanups. I think that is very troubling."

Herbold, who followed this issue for years in former Council Member Nick Licata's office before winning a seat on the council herself, is likely to continue pressing the mayor's staff on this issue. But it's hard to imagine the two sides ever finding much of a resolution.

These disagreements have been going on for years. The protocols around encampment sweeps have been in place since 2008. Bagshaw, who's leading the council's discussions on all this, is more focused on increasing shelter capacity and housing services than revisiting the argument about encampment sweeps. While she has said camps "irrespective of the size" should get advance notice and connections to services, she's also not fully against sweeps, as Sawant is.

Yet, as advocates have repeated over and over again, there are complex reasons people sleep outside—anxiety in shelter settings, a sense of community with others living in encampments, drug use—and the city has been slow to create low-barrier shelter options that address those issues.

"Even if—which is not currently the case—there was a significant amount of unused shelter capacity... we would still likely see people choosing to be outside," Lisa Daugaard of the Public Defenders' Association told council members on Friday. "They're not choosing to be outside necessarily because they don't know what the facts. They are not necessarily choosing to be outside for bad reasons. Often, people are motivated by profoundly human reasons that resonate for all of us."

The council will vote on final approval of the spending plan for the $2.3 million at its full council meeting on Tuesday. At that meeting, the mayor will also deliver his State of the City address, in which this issue is sure to be at the forefront.