Under pressure from legal advocacy groups and facing a divided city council, Mayor Ed Murray has finally offered something meaningful to the fight at city hall over how to address people sleeping outside.
In recent weeks, advocates for homeless people have called on the city to improve the way it clears homeless encampments and to allow unsheltered people to live on some limited public lands in the city. Council members have split on how far to go with that idea—or whether to do it at all.
Murray, meanwhile, has been on his own path. He convened a task force to work on the same issue at the same time as the city council. (That task force achieved basically nothing.) Murray's administration then issued a missive about all the problems with the council proposal. Then, he promised to veto any legislation allowing camping on parks property. Throughout the debate, nearly everyone has admitted the city's current city encampment policies are a failure, yet Murray has offered little in the way of an alternative.
Last night, he made a pitch. Instead of allowing more unsupervised camping on public land, Murray promised to open more city-supervised tent encampments.
In a last-minute press conference, Murray unveiled plans to open four new city-sanctioned tent encampments, promising at least one of them would be low-barrier, meaning residents could be active drug users. Nonprofit organizations would operate the camps in the same way they do at three others today. Murray acknowledged that it would likely face neighborhood backlash, but promised to move forward anyway.
The mayor also promised to increase garbage pickup near encampments. Beginning next month, the city will offer "needle pickup" within 24 hours of needles being reported, he said, and will install 10 sharps containers throughout the city. (Ten containers for the whole city seems obviously insufficient, but it's a start.)
Murray said the city will increase outreach to connect people living on the streets with shelter and services, and some community center and pool showers will soon be open to homeless people. He also reiterated plans to open a 24-hour homeless shelter by January.
Throughout all this, Murray doubled down on opposing any camping in city parks. A proposal from Council Member Mike O'Brien would allow camping on some wooded parks land, but not play fields or pathways. Murray vowed the city would continue removing homeless people sleeping in city parks or on sidewalks—a win for the neighborhood activists who have revolted against O'Brien's idea. "We can't have people in our parks," Murray said. "We can't have people on our sidewalks."
If the city-run shelters and encampments are full, however, some non-parks camping may be tolerated.
"We will not displace people from unauthorized encampments unless we can provide them with a reasonable alternative," he said.
Murray has yet to release a formal plan for any of this. He promised to send the city council a resolution next week outlining these steps. Murray said he would use $1.2 million from next year's budget for the four new authorized encampments. He will direct another $1 million to the city's Human Services Department to try to find nonprofits, private companies, churches, and philanthropic organizations to provide more shelter and storage space.
So, what does this all mean?
Overall, these are steps advocates for homeless people have endorsed in the past and are likely to support. But there will still be people who refuse to go to city-supervised encampments or shelter and the city must reckon with that.
The mayor's announcement is both a win and a loss for groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Columbia Legal Services, which support O'Brien's bill. The high-profile discussion clearly forced the mayor's hand, but his announcement did not address all of advocates' concerns.
O'Brien, who was not at the mayor's press conference, is also unlikely to be satisfied. He has repeatedly insisted that there must be some public land where people who choose not to go into city-supervised shelters and encampments can live without being chased out by authorities. That need remains unaddressed. I've reached out to O'Brien for comment and will update this post if I hear from him.
At 9:30 am today, the council had planned to discuss two competing versions of encampment legislation. Now, they will also hear from the mayor's office and put off voting on anything. Because of the council's budget process, that could mean punting any decision until December. By then, Bagshaw said, Murray's plan may have addressed the issues she was trying to deal with in the legislation. If a majority of council members line up behind the mayor, the O'Brien/ACLU/CLS proposal could be dead.