Nearly 3,000 people were sleeping on the streets of Seattle as of the last one-night count.
Nearly 3,000 people were sleeping on the streets of Seattle as of the last one-night count. Ansel Herz

"We have a PR issue to deal with," Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell told his eight colleagues Monday morning. Several council members nodded their heads. They knew exactly what Harrell meant. "We definitely do," Council Member Sally Bagshaw replied.

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Amid weeks of ongoing discussions about legislation on homeless encampment sweeps, the last few days has been particularly brutal. Two maps surfaced showing parks and sidewalks where the city may soon allow homeless people to camp. The maps had come from the mayor's office—which wants to see the legislation killed—and were not actually that useful. The parks one, for instance, included areas of parks council members had clearly stated they did not think should be open to camping, making it appear as if many more acres of parks land would be open to camping than what the council was actually discussing.

But the damage had already been done. Neighborhood groups took the maps and ran. An online petition against the proposal has 18,000 signatures. City council offices say they have received thousands of calls and hundreds of emails, many opposed to the legislation. The tension over the ordinance will surface again on Friday, when the council's human services committee takes up the legislation. No vote is expected, but neighborhood activists are planning a protest.

Ahead of Friday's meeting, the council released two competing versions of the legislation last night, revealing how council members have caved to neighborhood outrage but also remain deeply divided about how to move forward.

One version, from Council Member Sally Bagshaw, offers significant concessions to neighborhood groups and Mayor Ed Murray, who has said he would veto the bill if it allows camping on park land by saying no camping will be allowed on any parks land. (I've asked Murray's spokesperson whether he would still veto Bagshaw's version now that it bans camping on all park land, but I haven't heard back.) Even Council Member Tim Burgess, who has forcefully opposed this whole idea and rallied his supporters to email his colleagues, seemed open to Bagshaw's version in an interview with the blog Seattle City Council Insight.

The other version of the bill, from Council Member Mike O'Brien, is less restrictive and closer to the vision of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Columbia Legal Services, and the other homeless advocacy groups that originally proposed the changes to the way the city handles sweeps. While those groups agree actively used parks spaces, like paths and play fields, should not be open to camping, they don't believe all park land should be off limits.

Here's what both versions of the bill would do:

• Allow the city to immediately remove homeless people camped in so-called unsafe or unsuitable locations, including park play fields and dangerous locations near the freeway. (Earlier drafts controversially required 48 hours' notice of sweeps in such locations.)

• Require authorities to direct people swept from those types of locations to some other place on public land where they would be allowed to camp.

• Expire after two years, when the city hopes to have dramatically increased housing and shelter.

A man died after falling from this encampment in 2014. Camping would not be allowed at dangerous sites like this under a new law, but the city would have to give people an alternative location.
A man died after falling from this encampment in 2014. Camping would not be allowed at dangerous sites like this under a new law, but the city would have to give people an alternative location. Dominic Holden

From there, the two versions differ significantly. Let's run through the primary differences between the bills:

• Bagshaw's would allow camping in fewer areas than O'Brien's. O'Brien defines unsuitable locations as spaces that have a "specific public use" that's interrupted by camping. He calls out improved areas of city parks (paths, picnic tables, playgrounds), sidewalks in front of houses and apartment buildings, and sidewalks covered under the city's sit/lie law. (That law bans sitting and lying on commercial sidewalks during the daytime.) Bagshaw's includes a lengthy list of restricted areas, making all parks land off limits and banning camping all day and night on all public sidewalks and parking strips, not just those in front of homes. Neither would allow camping on school grounds.

• When people are in allowed locations, the city could still sweep them under both proposals. However, they lay out drastically different processes for those sweeps. Under Bagshaw's, the city could sweep people after 72 hours if housing or shelter is available for them, similar to the city's current protocols. O'Brien's would only allow sweeps after 30 days and only if housing is available.

That timing difference is huge. Allowing people to stay in camps for 30 days saves money the city is wasting chasing people around from one encampment to the next. Critically, it also allows enough time for outreach workers to build meaningful relationships with people living outside to possibly move them into housing or shelter.

The other difference between the two bills—whether the city should have to have housing available for people before evicting them—is significant too. It reignites an ongoing discussion at the city about why people don't take advantage of city-funded shelter beds today. One thing has become clear in recent months: The city's current shelters don't work for everyone. In particular, limited access for pets and partners can deter people from seeking indoor shelter. Limited hours can also be deterrents. (Think about it: Is getting in line by 5 or 6 pm in order to sleep in a shelter crowded with other people and then be kicked out at 6 or 7 am with all your stuff in tow actually that preferable to sleeping in a dry spot under the freeway? Particularly if you experience anxiety or substance abuse?) The mayor and city council have promised to open more low-barrier, 24-hour shelter beds, but that hasn't happened yet. Bagshaw's legislation would require the city to set up additional managed tent encampments, though it does not specify where.

• In camps deemed hazardous (with lots of garbage, needles, etc.), the city would have to notify campers about the hazard and provide things like garbage bags, rodent traps, and sharps containers. If the residents do not clean up the area within 72 hours, Bagshaw's proposal would give the city the ability to sweep them. O'Brien's would require 48 more hours of advance notice before a sweep.

• O'Brien's proposal addresses several things Bagshaw's does not. It would require the city to provide trash service and sharps containers upon request from camps of more than five people. It would establish a fine of $50 per violation if the city or its contractors don't follow the new rules. O'Brien's version would also create an advisory committee to oversee implementation of this legislation and direct the mayor to negotiate a deal with the state and county saying city staff will only assist sweeps on their properties if those sweeps are done as outlined in this ordinance. It would also direct the city council to draft similar legislation next year to address people living in cars and RVs.

As authorities prepared to clear the encampment under I-5 known as The Jungle Tuesday, protesters chanted stop the sweeps.
As authorities prepared to clear the encampment under I-5 known as The Jungle Tuesday, protesters chanted "stop the sweeps." HG

The differences are stark. But it's worth noting: Neither proposal would unleash the sort of apocalyptic scene neighborhood groups, the Seattle Times Editorial Board and Council Member Tim Burgess have described.

So here are three things neither of these bills would do:

• Allow unfettered camping in city parks: This is most explicit in Bagshaw's version, which wasn't yet public when the freakout began. But even the original and most permissive version of this bill was not designed to allow camping everywhere. That bill banned camping in spots with a "specific public use" where the public had no alternative for that use and the use was impeded by camping. Advocates who drafted the original bill have said all along that was never meant to allow for widespread park camping. The misrepresentation of the legislation as allowing unrestricted park camping—whether lazy or intentional—has severely hurt its reputation among the public and will make passing any improvement to the way the city does sweeps difficult.

• Stop the city's work on longterm housing for people experiencing homelessness: Burgess has characterized the legislation as a distraction from the city's plans to refocus its homelessness spending on permanent housing. But nothing about the legislation would stop the city from moving forward with those plans. The city already spends money on homeless encampment sweeps, including paying private companies to clear encampments.

• Repeat the mistakes of Portland: Danny Westneat made the Portland comparison last week. And, in a feisty exchange with O'Brien on KUOW this week, Burgess made the comparison too. "Once we start down that path and the city officially sanctions that kind of activity," he said, "we will have Portland's experience, which did exactly the same thing and was a disaster."

There are important differences between what happened in Portland and Seattle's proposals. Portland's failed camping policy didn't apply to parks, but allowed sleeping bags on all city sidewalks. The rules were focused more on timing than geography, requiring people to pack up their things and leave their campsite each morning. In the same way part-time shelters are difficult for people with no where else to go, those rules proved ineffective. People didn't leave. Allowing people a semi-permanent place to stay, as O'Brien's legislation would do, is a different prospect than expecting them to pack up each morning. The plan in Portland also provided dumpsters and portable toilets for homeless people throughout the city, which the mayor called a success.

In Seattle, advocates for homeless people are likely to spend the coming weeks battling Bagshaw's significantly watered-down proposal and supporting O'Brien's. Meanwhile, Bagshaw and O'Brien will be trying to whip up votes from their colleagues. In order to override the mayor's promised veto, they will need six members in support of the bill.

The council's human services committee will discuss both versions of the legislation Friday at 9:30 am. I'll be there, helping sort through the fact and fiction. You can follow me here. The meeting will be streamed live here.

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