Mayor Ed Murray has promised to open new city-supervised tent encampments, but his administration will continue removing homeless people from parks.
Mayor Ed Murray has promised to open new city-supervised tent encampments, but his administration will continue removing homeless people from parks. City of Seattle

Earlier this month, as the Seattle City Council was poised to debate how to reduce the forced evictions of homeless people sleeping on the streets, Mayor Ed Murray swept in at the last second to offer his own alternative.

Instead of allowing homeless people to camp on limited public land, as the council had been debating for weeks, Murray promised to open more city-supervised tent encampments but would maintain a no-tolerance policy for people sleeping in parks. Several council members took his side, effectively icing proposals from the leftist wing of the council and from homeless advocates.

In a document released at 6 pm Friday, Murray's office offered the first look at the specifics of his plan. The city will open four new city-supervised tent encampments, according to the plan, two of them open to people with substance abuse disorders and other issues that may make them unable to use the traditional shelter system. Those four encampments will house 200 people total.

The mayor also promises to:

• Fund 100 new "cost-effective and attractive indoor shelter options” for people who can't use the city's traditional shelter system, and convert some existing shelters to operate 24/7. Details on these changes won't be available until later this year.

• Open the long-promised 24-hour “Navigation Center” by January.

• Increase the number of outreach workers working with unsheltered people to 12. That's up from about four today, according to the mayor's office. (You'll notice some classic Ed Murray credit-taking in this section: "When Mayor Murray took office, the City only funded 1.5 outreach workers dedicated to connecting with people living in encampments...")

• Create a nine-officer Seattle Police Department team to work with those outreach workers to "problem-solve the root causes behind some people’s criminal behavior." The plan promises this will give police an alternative to arresting homeless people, but doesn't go into specifics.

• Do more trash pickup in Little Saigon, Chinatown/International District, and Ballard and respond to reports of needles on public property within 24 hours, seven days a week. The city will place 10 to 15 sharps containers throughout the city.

Finally—addressing the crux of the issue homeless advocates, the mayor, and city council members have been fighting about—Murray's plan promises “more compassionate protocols for unauthorized encampments."

Setting aside the fact that the word "compassionate" has lost all meaning in these policy discussions, let's take a look at what the mayor is promising here.

In the plan, Murray says the city will do immediate sweeps of homeless encampments that “pose an imminent health or safety risk” or “unlawfully obstruct a public use." On other sites, the city will do a sweep with 72 hours' notice only if they can offer the people living in the encampment “a safer alternative place to live." The city will post reports of every encampment sweep online and set up a committee to review the process.

A man died recently while camping at this location, which had been swept multiple times this year.
A man died recently while camping at this location, which had been swept multiple times this year. HG

These proposed changes come after months of discussion about whether the city is following its own protocols for how to clear encampments and a debate at the city council about whether homeless people should be allowed to sleep in some areas of city parks. Council legislation would have made a similar distinction about unsafe campsites, but would have required the city to direct people camping in those places to other city land where they would be allowed to stay rather than just traditional shelters.

Murray's promises here beg as many questions as they answer. The two most important: How will the city define "a public use?" And what, exactly, qualifies as “a safer alternative place to live."

Advocates at Columbia Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington told me Friday they are worried that allowing the city to immediately sweep any encampments that “unlawfully obstruct a public use" is overly broad.

“What they've basically said is they can do immediate removals in every single instance because 'a public use' is anything," says Elisabeth Smith, legislative director at the ACLU of Washington. (A spokesperson for the mayor declined to respond to this concern on the record.)

By promising not to sweep people unless the city can offer them an alternative place, the mayor is echoing some of the language used by homeless advocates. But during a press conference last week, Murray acknowledged this offer of alternative shelters would include traditional shelter beds. That's where the problem lies. Advocates have been arguing for months that not only is the shelter system sometimes full but many people sleeping outside will not or cannot use traditional shelters, which is why they should be allowed a place outside.

Murray is clearly trying to address that shortfall with low-barrier encampments and new shelter beds (all things homeless service providers have called for) but there's still a problem of scale. His plan commits to 100 new beds and 200 spots at city-supervised encampments. Every night, 3,000 people sleep on the streets of Seattle.

"Sanctioned encampments can be part of solution," Smith says. "They cannot be the only solution because even if—and this is an impossibility—there was enough sanctioned encampment space for everyone living outside...that is still not going to work for everyone who is unsheltered."

Given that reality, the standoff between Murray and advocates is likely to continue. The ACLU and CLS will keep pushing for a change to the law that offers people sleeping outside space on public land where they are allowed to camp. Seattle City Council Member Mike O'Brien has said he's still committed to that sort of change, too, although he's looking increasingly lonely in that position.

For the mayor's part, because of the special rules of the state of emergency he declared nearly a year ago, he can go ahead with his plans without council approval. Under the state of emergency, the mayor's office is not required to hold neighborhood meetings to site the new encampments, but is likely to. (Those meetings will inevitably go terribly.) The council won't take up O'Brien's proposal again until late November or December.