Washington State Department of Transportation crews regularly clear encampments along highways, including this one in June.
Washington State Department of Transportation crews regularly clear encampments along highways, including this one in June. Ansel Herz

Late last week, Mayor Ed Murray did something he loves to do: He announced a task force to figure out what to do about a problem facing his administration. The problem in question: homeless encampment "sweeps," the process by which the city forces homeless people sleeping outside to leave their camping spots. The proposed task force: a group of homeless advocates, plus neighborhood and business groups, who would talk about "improving the city’s response to unsanctioned encampments."

Today, several high-profile advocacy groups soundly rejected Murray's task force idea, chastising the mayor for the ongoing sweeps and proposing a more direct alternative. In a letter to the mayor and city council today, representatives for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Columbia Legal Services, Real Change, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, the Public Defender Association, and the Seattle Community Law Center introduced a sweeping piece of legislation that would overhaul the rules governing encampment sweeps. If passed, the ordinance would significantly narrow the instances in which the city could forcibly evict people living outside.

What the proposed law would do:

Right now, city and state officials can clear any homeless encampment with 72 hours notice. Under the advocates' proposal, only encampments that pose "an imminent and likely public health or safety harm"—not just a "generalized harm common to all who are unsheltered"—could be considered a hazard and cleared within 48 hours. In all other cases, the city would be required to undertake a 30-day process to notify and offer services to the people living in an encampment before forcing them to move. The law would apply to tents, cars/trucks, and RVs.

For any encampment that did not pose an immediate risk, outreach workers would have to, over the course of 30 days, offer the people staying there extensive outreach and "adequate and accessible housing" before the city could clear the area. If an area was going to be cleared, the city would have to notify the people living there of the specific date and time when the cleanup would occur and provide an explanation of what would happen during that process.

The law would also set up a more thorough process for documenting and storing people's belongings that are taken during cleanups. It would require the city to provide trash pickup and sanitation services to any camps with more than five people, and it would create an advisory group to oversee the sweeps. If the city violated any terms of the new law while doing sweeps, it would have to pay each person affected $250 per violation.

"This letter is a call to action," the advocates wrote to the mayor and council today. "It is time for the city to take a new approach in responding to people who homeless and living outdoors—one that strikes an appropriate balance between the rights and needs of people sleeping outdoors and legitimate public health and safety concerns."

A spokesperson for the mayor has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Why advocates are taking this route:

All over Seattle, homeless people camp under freeway overpasses and bridges, on sidewalks, and in other locations. Murray's administration has repeatedly claimed these illegal camps are a public health and safety hazard. So, week after week, city and state staff post notices near the camps, offer some outreach and services to the people living there, and then force people to leave. Advocates have been saying for months—and this Seattle Times report last week confirmed—that despite city protocols that are supposed to protect homeless people and their stuff in this process, the sweeps are often disorganized and harmful. People sometimes don't know exactly when their camp will be cleared and their belongings are either thrown away or stored in a hard-to-access warehouse. (This Times' video will give you a sense of what this all looks like.)

Today's announcement is a response to the ongoing disaster that the sweeps have become. The legislation is an effort primarily to reduce the number of sweeps that happen overall and then to better protect the people who are forced to move.

"We're not interested in kinder, gentler sweeps," Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, told The Stranger. "We're interested in resetting the framework for what the beginning, middle, and end of the response is for people living outside."

If passed, the law would replace the current policies that govern the sweeps, sidestepping the mayor's task force idea and going straight to the city council.

"The mayor's task force is the wrong tool for the job," said Real Change founder Tim Harris. "This is about following the constitution and extending the same rights to people who are without housing that anybody should be able to expect in a democratic society. This isn't up for debate by neighborhood associations and so forth."

What happens next:

Advocates are still waiting for Murray's response, but are hopeful they'll have support on the city council regardless.

Once the council is back from its current recess on September 6, a member will have to formally introduce this bill for consideration. (Look out for Mike O'Brien or Lisa Herbold to take this up.)

Then, the bill is likely to go through Council Member Sally Bagshaw's human services committee, which next meets on September 14 at 2 p.m. Bagshaw has been outspoken about wanting to better protect homeless people from sweeps, but also has a close relationship with the mayor. This will test her loyalties.

Real Change's Harris told The Stranger the coalition has commitments from a majority of city council members to support the legislation. A representative for the ACLU told the Seattle Times they had support from some council members, but stopped short of saying they have a majority. Council members did not immediately return requests for comment.