The Seattle City Council rejected a bill Monday to legalize and regulate homeless encampments. The bill's sponsor, Council Member Nick Licata, says the measure was designed to make encampments safer—encampments like Nickelsville, which has been plagued by crime and neighborhood acrimony—by keeping them policed and connected with social services.
"We know that there are thousands of people who can't get into shelters every night," Licata said on the day before his measure lost in a 5–4 vote. The measure would have allowed encampments, under certain conditions, to be permitted in nonresidential areas for up to a year. While Council Members Mike O'Brien, Sally Bagshaw, and Bruce Harrell joined Licata to vote in favor, the council's moderate-to-conservative majority ostensibly nixed the bill on grounds that encampments fail to solve homelessness.
They repeated familiar, sometimes illogical arguments that the city should spend its money on long-term housing instead (regulating encampments doesn't actually siphon money from housing funds). Council Member Jean Godden said, "People deserve better." Tim Burgess said cities are retreating from encampments as a solution, and Tom Rasmussen claimed, without a trace of irony, "We do care, and we're doing all that we can to help those who are homeless."
But Tim Harris, director of Real Change, calls those arguments specious, saying, "It is just sad that the majority of the council can't wrap their head around the idea that encampments are a harm-reduction strategy and they save lives." The bill would have required permitted camps to be run by experienced organizations; to follow certain maintenance, health, and safety requirements; to be near transit lines; and to have insurance if they're on city property, among other regulations. Harris adds, "There is really no excuse for them to not pass this other than just cowardice."
Still, Council Member Richard Conlin complained about the problems with Nickelsville, ignoring the fact that many of those problems—sanitation, campers reluctant to call police, the unusual location in West Seattle—seem to stem from its very illegality.
Supporters had tried to delay the vote until September, when the city would see the results of $500,000 they allocated to move Nickelsville residents into longer-term housing. (They've directed the mayor to evict the camp from its current site in September.) "It would have been nice had we been able to... see if the $500,000 had worked," Harrell lamented.
"These folks still exist," said O'Brien, when it was clear the bill would fail. "They will be sleeping somewhere." Just, for now, under bridges and in greenways, not in organized, policed encampments.