Since he was elected mayor, Ed Murray has played expert politician when it comes to homeless encampments, saying he doesn't support them while also not outright denouncing them. "I don't think the answer is encampments," he told The Stranger last year, while adding that he was "open to having a conversation around using public property" for encampments. In September, Murray advocated for putting the city's resources "into finding permanent housing—either temporary shelter or permanent housing—for folks who are homeless." But in the same comments he also said he wouldn't veto a bill legalizing encampments if the council passed one.
Meanwhile, homelessness in the city has worsened, and sweeps of tent encampments have increased. In September, the situation became more urgent when a man died after falling from a makeshift encampment near an I-5 overpass.
Council Member Nick Licata—who tried to pass a bill in 2013 to regulate encampments but was voted down by members who wanted to focus on shelters, transitional housing, and other efforts—said that Murray initially had "some serious doubts" about encampments.
But after the mayor's emergency task force on homelessness reported to the city council in December, saying the city should support seven tent cities, Murray shifted his opinion, and at a January 14 press conference said he'll allow three. They'll be permitted on nonresidential or city land for one year and will be required to follow some rules about data collection, access to services, and proximity to transit and each other—maybe not the radical acceptance some advocates might have hoped for, but still a huge deal.
So what happened?
"Once he started the public process, he came to realize there's a large amount of support to realize the existence of encampments and make them livable," says Licata. "That goes to his credit of being willing to, quite honestly, adjust his perspective."
Murray did not respond to requests for comment. But there are several factors at play here.
The numbers: Homelessness is growing in the city. A one-night count conducted last year found 2,300 people sleeping outside—an almost 16 percent increase from 2013 and startling when compared to federal statistics that show homelessness nationwide fell by 10 percent. In other words, as the task force told the city council in December, homelessness in Seattle is a "crisis."
The task force: The group includes some real crusaders on this issue, including Tim Harris, director of the newspaper and advocacy group Real Change, and Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee.
After doing outreach at Nickelsville's last location, Lee says her group moved more than 70 individuals and families out of the encampment and into more permanent shelter. "What [that] showed was that a tent city didn't have to be a dead end," she says. "Just because you end up in a tent or a hut doesn't mean you're going to be there for years and years."
Harris praised Murray's decision and says he's "going out on a limb," since federal housing policy generally shies away from supporting encampments. "Up until three or four months ago, the whole encampment issue wasn't really meaningfully on [the mayor's] radar," he says. "People are being forced to deal with the reality—after nearly a decade of denying reality—that we're not able to keep up. We need to at least make an effort to help people who are on the street and unsheltered do that under safer conditions."
Voices like this aren't new to the debate, but Licata says he thinks they got more attention from Murray and his staff on this task force than they'd been given before.
The politics: The bill still needs to pass a council vote. But since the legalization of encampments was last proposed, the makeup of the city council has changed significantly. Last year, Kshama Sawant, who's been a vocal supporter of encampments, replaced Richard Conlin, who voted against Licata's 2013 bill.
With the council's current makeup, passage seems likely, but the mayor's support could sway some holdouts. Council President Tim Burgess, who has consistently opposed encampments, now says he's "on the fence."
"I don't know if [the mayor's position] is the only reason people might change their votes... but any time any council member on any subject also has the mayor on their side, that's a very significant factor," Burgess says. "It certainly doesn't hurt. In this case, it might very well help."