A protest during the citys sweep of The Jungle, an encampment under I-5.
A protest during the city's sweep of "The Jungle," an encampment under I-5. HG

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Activists have for years been calling on Seattle to stop forcibly removing people living outside in public spaces. But even as the city has increased the outreach and services offered to people living in homeless encampments, it has continued to clear them. Council Members Kshama Sawant and Mike O'Brien have a new proposal to try to stop that practice.

Sawant and O'Brien are proposing an amendment to the 2018 budget that would stop the city from spending any money or staff time on "sweeps" on public land. Exceptions would be made for school property, active rights of way like sidewalks and roads, and "activated parks" (basically, parks that people actually use).

Those carveouts echo last year's proposal from Columbia Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the demands of a new coalition led by the Transit Riders Union.

Homeless sweeps increased during former mayor Ed Murray's administration with the city clearing 527 camps in 2015 compared to 131 in 2013. In 2016, Seattle received 3,000 complaints about illegal camping and "resolved complaints about encampments at 600 sites," according to the mayor's office. (It's not clear exactly how many of those resolutions involved forcing people to move.) While advocates and people experiencing homelessness have criticized the process as cruel, disorganized, and ineffective, the mayor's office has defended its actions, saying it offers people services and shelter.

The budget proviso from Sawant and O'Brien defines sweeps as "removing inhabitants and/or personal belongings, or providing administrative, security, or contracting support to those removals." It would stop city spending on those sweeps except in the exempted locations. But it would not stop spending on "sanitation, other law enforcement, trash removal, counseling, outreach to mitigate any unsafe or hazardous locations, and other homeless services at those unauthorized encampments," the amendment reads.

The proviso would be in effect "until council passes legislation guaranteeing the human rights of inhabitants of unauthorized encampments and votes to lift this proviso."

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Sawant and O'Brien will need one more member to cosponsor the measure in order for it to get consideration from the council. (Council Member Lisa Herbold, a likely ally, says she's not cosponsoring any amendments right now because she's now chair of the budget committee. That role requires her to create the so-called "balancing package" in which she helps determine which council members' amendments make it into the final budget.) Sawant and O'Brien would then need a council majority to approve adding the proviso to the budget.

Last year, Tim Burgess—then council member, now mayor—opposed the CLS/ACLU proposal and defended sweeps. If the full council approves the Sawant/O'Brien proviso, Burgess could veto it. However, because there is no line-item veto in Seattle, that would require him to veto the entire budget. The council needs a seven-vote majority to overturn a budget veto, according to a council spokesperson.

Council members will discuss their proposed budget amendments beginning on October 23 and vote on the full budget in late November.