Mayor Ed Murray's administration is doubling down on its defense of the ongoing evictions of homeless encampments, while still promising to find a more humane way to carry out the so-called "sweeps."
Last night, at the same time as a new task force on homeless encampments was meeting, Murray's administration released a sharp condemnation of a new proposal to cut down on the number of instances in which the city is forcing homeless people to leave where they're sleeping outside.
Murray found himself in a standoff last week with high-profile homeless advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Columbia Legal Services, after those groups proposed legislation to reduce the number of encampment sweeps. That legislation would replace the problematic city policies that currently govern encampment sweeps. Advocates said they had significant support for the idea on the Seattle City Council, but Murray snubbed them. He went ahead with a task force he convened to talk about how to improve the city's current policies and then released a memo calling the ACLU-backed proposal too restrictive and expensive.
Today, the ACLU and CLS are firing back. ACLU of Washington Legislative Director Elisabeth Smith called the administration's response "misleading" and "inaccurate." CLS attorney Yurij Rudensky says the city's arguments are red herrings. "These are both hyperbolic and designed to stir up opposition from people who haven't actually read the ordinance," Rudensky says.
Here are the primary claims made by Murray's administration and why the ACLU and CLS lawyers behind the proposed legislation say they're bullshit:
The law would open the floodgates for camping on any public property.
In a memo to the city council, heads of several city departments—including Parks Director Jesús Aguirre, Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole, and Transportation Department Director Scott Kubly—lay out an argument claiming the law would allow widespread camping throughout city-owned lands, including parks, schools, and sidewalks. The administration claims the proposal would require the city to repeal its current ban on camping in city parks as well as rules preventing RVs from parking on city streets. That, the memo reads, "would effectively serve as an invitation to camp on city property and parks." The Murray administration also claims the legislation would require the city to offer "designated camping locations in city parks" and could make the city vulnerable to lawsuits.
Indeed, the legislation requires officials to direct people who are forced out of their encampments to other places where they can safely camp. But Rudensky, from CLS, says the law is not intended to allow for unfettered camping on public land. The legislation includes exceptions for "unsafe" and "unsuitable" locations, defined as places that pose imminent danger (like an encampment on a ledge over a freeway) or that prevent the intended "public use" of a space (like an encampment significantly blocking use of a sidewalk). In those cases, the city could clear the encampment with just 48 hours' notice because of the safety risk.
"If people can't get by or it's affecting the flow of traffic on that sidewalk and the public can't pass by, then that's an unsuitable location," Rudensky says. "That was always the intent."
The law would cost the city millions.
The administration's memo estimates the cost of implementing the legislation could total tens of millions of dollars. The legislation would have some cost. It requires the city to offer encampments of more than five people trash pickup and sanitation services.
"Every dollar spent on supporting outdoor living is a dollar not spent moving someone into housing," the memo reads.
The ACLU's Smith acknowledges that the legislation will come with some costs, but says in a statement "the mayor’s office has greatly inflated those costs." Plus, the city is already spending significant taxpayer dollars on the sweeps that are happening right now, Rudensky says.
Today, much of the sweeps work is done by existing city and state staff, but the city also sometimes pays private companies to clear encampments. Those for-profit companies were used least 12 times in the first four months of this year, and one company was paid $240 an hour.
"The city's current response is very expensive and entirely ineffective," Rudensky says. (No one is happy with the current sweeps. While advocates complain they violate homeless people's rights, some neighborhood activists continue to complain the city isn't doing enough to clear encampments.)
Pointing unsheltered people toward a safe place to sleep and providing them trash pickup—while outreach workers keep trying to find them housing and services—will be cheaper than chasing them from place to place, Rudensky says.
"The goal of this ordinance is to recognize the realities of the existing crisis," he says. "We have thousands and thousands of community members sleeping unsheltered every night. The truth of the matter, as stark and grim as it may be, is that number is likely to increase rather than decrease in the immediate future."
The law would prevent police from enforcing the law.
Finally, the administration's memo claims the advocates' proposal would prevent Seattle Police from clearing camps that are rife with crime. The memo says that if police identified tents with "significant suspected criminal activity," officers wouldn't be able to do anything about those camps until they went through an "onerous process" to find the unsheltered people another place to camp.
Rudensky calls that "rhetoric designed to inflame and scare the general public." The law as written by the ACLU, CLS, and others allows the city to "respond appropriately to emergency situations such as fires, crimes, or medical crises as it normally would outside outdoor living spaces."
"There are no special exemptions afforded to people who are unsheltered from being subject to law enforcement," Rudensky says. He adds later: "Our goal is to make sure that people's civil rights and dignity are being treated equally and are being respected."
Ultimately, the fight underscores the gulf between Murray's view and the advocates': The mayor believes sweeps can be improved but are necessary for public safety; advocates believe sweeps should be allowed in very limited circumstances but are largely a waste of time and money. It also sets up the most significant showdown yet between Murray and the new Seattle City Council, which was elected in the new district-based system in November.
Council Member Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the council's human services committee, says she believes a majority of council members support a "slightly modified version (clarifying responsibilities)" of the legislation. To figure out what that means, stay tuned for the council's return from its current recess on September 6. Then, the legislation will be formally introduced. A vote is expected later in the month.