Routine Seattle City Council meetings don't usually pack the house. But a discussion Tuesday about whether or not to put a piece of legislation on the calendar drew a huge crowd, some holding signs that read "sweep trash, not people."
The city council voted 7-1 Tuesday to send a proposal limiting homeless encampment sweeps on to their committee process. The vote does not enact the legislation, but means it will get discussion and a possible vote over the coming month. The controversial ordinance, drafted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Columbia Legal Services, and others, would significantly limit instances in which the city could quickly evict homeless encampments. Camps that pose a safety risk or prevent the public use of public land could be cleared in 48 hours, but the city would have to offer people whose camps don't pose such a threat 30 days and an alternative place to stay. The proposal would also require the city to provide camps with more than five people, garbage and sanitation services.
Council Members Lisa Herbold, Rob Johnson, Mike O’Brien, and Kshama Sawant co-sponsored the proposal.
Council Member Tim Burgess was the only vote against pushing the ordinance through the council process, claiming it "is not the balanced approach the people of Seattle deserve" and that it "tips the balance decidedly away from public health and safety."
But Burgess wasn't the only one with reservations about the proposal. Council President Bruce Harrell said, "In its current form, I can't support it." Herbold, a sponsor of the legislation, said, "significant changes will need to be made." Council Member Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the human services committee that will oversee the legislation, has said previously she will support some changes to the bill, but has not specified what those will be. Council Member Debora Juarez was out because of a family emergency.
After the vote on whether to move the legislation forward, the council heard an hour of public testimony, mostly from people who oppose the ordinance. Representatives from the Chinatown-International District complained about increased crime and drug use in their neighborhood, linking those problems to homeless people. One speaker said small children who attend her martial arts school in the neighborhood see homeless people "pass[ing] needles to each other." A representative for the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, a group of neighborhood activists who've complained about homeless people living in RVs and tents in neighborhoods north of the ship canal, said the ordinance puts "no responsibility on those squatting in public places." She added, "When did the city of Seattle become a maid service?"
During the meeting, a coalition of business groups sent the city council a letter claiming the proposal "ties the city's hands when it comes to addressing health and safety issues resulting from encampments in our public spaces." (Drafters of the legislation have argued that type of characterization is bullshit.)
The API Food Fight Club's Sonny Nguyen told the council that opponents of the legislation "do not speak for the Chinatown-International District." Nguyen said his group supports sending the legislation through the council process for more discussion.
Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association, complained about the "false dichotomy" of pitting concerns about homeless people against concerns about public safety. Supporters of the proposal say it will stop the city from chasing homeless people from place to place when they have no other place to go. "Shutting [them] down encampment by encampment does not reduce the problem of homelessness," Daugaard said. "It does not reduce the problem of public disorder."
Some supporters of the proposal complained that the council had shut them out. A large crowd who showed up just before the council meeting was directed into an overflow room downstairs, where they could watch the proceedings but couldn't sign up to testify. Inside council chambers, a few speakers complained that some homeless people who support the proposal weren't able to speak. After the council cut off public testimony, several protesters shouted at Harrell and were escorted out of the meeting by security. (It was nothing compared to the meeting a few weeks ago on the proposed new police precinct in north Seattle.)
The city council will now consider the proposal over the next month at meetings of the human services committee. Bagshaw has promised a vote on some version of the legislation by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, Mayor Ed Murray, who opposes the proposal, is taking his own route. Murray has convened a task force to talk some more about how to improve the problematic sweeps and may pitch his own legislation later this month. This week, Murray's office will also unveil a new report about the city's homelessness spending and likely lay out a plan for revamping that spending.
All of this means that, as we approach the one year anniversary of Seattle's official homelessness state of emergency, there's a lot more talking to come .