Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw said Wednesday the city has moved so far on addressing homelesness over the past year, but an important new shelter is being delayed.
Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw said Wednesday the city has "moved so far" on addressing homelessness, but an important new shelter is delayed. City of Seattle

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It was June when Mayor Ed Murray first announced his plans to open a new type of homeless shelter in Seattle, called a Navigation Center. The site would be open 24 hours a day, modeled off a shelter in San Francisco, and would offer case management, showers, laundry, meals, and storage. It would accept couples and groups—all efforts to address the well-documented shortcomings of the city's current shelter system. The new shelter, praised by city council members and advocates, would be open by the end of this year, Murray's office said at the time. The city selected the Downtown Emergency Services Center to run it. And nearly every time the mayor has been asked about his plans for addressing homelessness since then, he's repeated the promises of the Navigation Center.

Now, six months later, the mayor's office says the shelter will not in fact open until sometime early next year because they're having trouble finding a location.

The news came Wednesday during the city council's final meeting of the year on homelessness, a crisis that has reached emergency levels as about 3,000 people sleep unsheltered in Seattle each night. Staff for the city's Finance and Administrative Services Department and Human Services Department, both of which answer to the mayor, updated the city council on their offices' efforts to address homelessness, including the new 24-hour shelter.

"Identifying the site [for the new shelter] has taken longer than we had originally considered, so we’re going to have to issue a new timeline once a site has been identified," said Jason Johnson, division director of the Human Services Department. When I asked Johnson later what exactly were the obstacles to siting the new shelter, he replied, "I can't give any more information."

Also revealed at Wednesday's meeting: The city may not open a fourth new homeless encampment, as the mayor promised in October. Murray's office has announced the locations of three new encampments, housing around 200 people, but has been vague about the promised fourth encampment. On Wednesday, the city's newly hired homelessness czar George Scarola said no site has been selected for that fourth encampment and suggested the camp may open only after the first three prove successful. (Nevermind that the city already knows encampments can work. Multiple other city-supervised encampments have been up and running for a year.)

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On the most controversial question surrounding the city's response to homelessness—how the city should evict people illegally camping outside—Murray's administration offered little new information Wednesday. The mayor, city council, neighborhood groups, and homeless advocates have been arguing for months about how the city should conduct so-called "sweeps" of homeless encampments. After he helped kill a city council effort to change the law about those sweeps, Murray promised to institute more "compassionate" protocols for how they are conducted.

Council Member Mike O'Brien pressed Murray's staff again Wednesday on what, specifically, those changes are going to look like. Which camps would be prioritized for removal? And what sorts of alternatives will the people who are swept be offered? O'Brien got few real answers.

Chris Potter from the city's Department of Finance and Administrative Services said those rules are currently "in interdepartmental circulation" for feedback from staffers across the city. He promised a public release of the draft of the new rules in early January. At the rate these things are going lately, don't count on it

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