After a contentious meeting about homeless encampments Friday, Council Member Mike OBrien says hes frustrated the path forward is unclear.
After a contentious meeting about homeless encampments on Friday, Council Member Mike O'Brien says he's frustrated the path forward is unclear. City of Seattle

Neighborhood advocates who've been fighting an effort to change the way the city forces homeless people to leave their encampments won a victory by delay on Friday.

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The effort led by Council Member Mike O'Brien to change the way the city handles so-called encampment sweeps is now stalled with no chance of moving forward for at least a month.

At a raucous meeting Friday, the city council discussed competing proposals for addressing homeless encampments but took no vote. The meeting came after weeks of controversy over O'Brien's proposal, which is meant to improve the city's chaotic process of clearing homeless encampments but has been met with neighborhood backlash. Council members say they've received thousands of emails about the issue.

Now, O'Brien and Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the council's human services committee, say they don't anticipate any more meetings or a potential vote on legislation addressing the sweeps until late November or December. In an interview yesterday, O'Brien said he's "frustrated." He believes at least three of his council colleagues remain committed to passing his version of the sweeps bill, which would require the city to offer homeless people who are forcibly removed from encampments an alternative location to camp and would require the city to provide sanitation services at some camps.

The legislation came after concerns that the city does not follow its own protocols for clearing encampments. But, O'Brien added, "Frankly, the temperature out there is so high it's difficult to get anything accomplished right now."

Originally, Friday's meeting held the possibility of a vote. O'Brien and Bagshaw had introduced competing drafts of sweeps legislation and were planning to discuss both. But a last-minute announcement from Mayor Ed Murray derailed the process. In a press conference, Murray promised to open more city-supervised tent encampments but to continue sweeping people living in parks. (O'Brien's proposal would allow camping in some greenbelts and inactive park land.) Baghsaw stood with him and said her committee would not vote on either her or O'Brien's proposal. Her committee will not meet again until the council finishes its budget process next month. In the meantime, she plans to work with the mayor's office on his plan.

Yet specifics about the mayor's strategy remain unclear. He has not submitted the plan in writing to the council. On Friday, his public safety adviser Scott Lindsay and his counsel Ian Warner danced around exactly what the sweeps will look like moving forward.

Warner told council members the mayor would soon deliver rules spelling out exactly how sites will be prioritized for sweeps. Lindsay promised a "non-displacement principle," meaning the city will only force people to move if they have a space in a shelter or another encampment to offer. (That idea is fraught: Traditional shelter options and managed encampments can have rules and curfews that make them unworkable for some people sleeping outside.) But Lindsay offered contradictory descriptions of how the sweeps will operate moving forward.

"There's no plan nor capability to sweep persons off of all park property and this is just the reality of the situation now," Lindsay said, "which is we have lot of people living in greenbelts other areas. But we do need to preserve that capability... The mayor has said very clearly he will not accept a plan that authorizes camping in park property, but our resources are constrained."

The crowd at the meeting Friday was overwhelmingly opposed to reducing the number of encampment sweeps or allowing camping on any park land, repeatedly shouting down Council Members Kshama Sawant and Mike O'Brien.

"Tonight, thousands of people are sleeping outside... My legislation starts from the place that those individuals have a human right, have a constitutional right to sleep somewhere," O'Brien said. Several people shouted from the crowd, "That's not in the constitution!"

"The parks are not at your disposal to give to the homeless," one speaker told the council, saying unsheltered people should get services and job training, "not our parks." Another said the city should "make a distinction between homeless people who have roots in Seattle and those who come from outside."

Several community members as well as advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Columbia Legal Services, who helped write O'Brien's bill, spoke in favor but were outnumbered.

"We are here because the city's current policy is not working," ACLU of Washington Legislative Director Elisabeth Smith said. "We are pleased that the mayor has recognized that fact. However, we are still concerned city will disregard the new policies the mayor outlined yesterday as it has ignored current policies."

All that leaves O'Brien trying to figure out how to move forward. He still hopes to pass a law changing the way the city handles sweeps. O'Brien believes changing the law will give advocates for homeless people who sometimes monitor sweeps something more concrete to point to if they believe the city is violating people's rights.

"What a lot of the community advocates have been frustrated by is we don't abide by our own rules," he said. "And the rules are vague, loose, and administrative in nature."

O'Brien supports the mayor's plans to open new sanctioned encampments but doesn't believe those camps and the city's existing shelters will be sufficient.

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"On any given night, there may be a handful of shelter beds open and folks are choosing not to use them—not because they want to alienate soccer moms but because sleeping outside in a tent is a better option for them," O'Brien said. "I don't think forcing them to move makes a lot of sense."

According to the latest one-night count, 3,000 people sleep unsheltered in Seattle each night. The mayor plans to open four new city-supervised encampments. Similar encampments that are already open hold about 100 people each. O'Brien is skeptical the mayor's plan can shelter enough people.

"The bottom line for me [is that] what I can't do is for us to create a policy that makes us feel good but means the people sleeping outdoors are going to continue to be swept because they have nowhere to go where they won't be swept," O'Brien said. "Then we're where we are now and... that's just unacceptable."

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