Allowing tent cities is crisis response, says a mayors task force on homelessness.
  • Kelly O
  • Allowing tent cities is "crisis response," says the mayor's task force on homelessness.

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A task force looking at how to deal with homelessness in Seattle right now is recommending that the city legalize homeless encampments. “It’s a crisis response,” Sharon Lee, a member of the task force and executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, told a council committee yesterday.

The “Mayor’s Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness,” as it's called, was convened by Mayor Ed Murray back in October to come up with ideas for what the city could do immediately to help the homeless. At yesterday's meeting, it officially recommended that the city allow nonprofits to host up to seven encampments on public or private land across Seattle, allowing as many as 100 people to live in each. The group also recommended the city fund services for those camps and quickly spend the $100,000 the council set aside in its 2015 budget for nonprofits and churches already serving homeless camps. (The council also budgeted $200,000 for the task force's recommendations.)

Task force members’ justifications mirrored the arguments made last year when Council Member Nick Licata tried to get a bill passed that would further regulate homeless camps in hopes of making them safer. That measure failed when a majority of the council argued the city should be focusing instead on shelters, transitional housing and other efforts—nevermind the fact that Licata’s bill wasn’t taking money away from those other programs. As some members of the task force repeated today: People are already sleeping on the street—somewhere around 2,300 at last count—so it’s not a choice between shelters and tents but a decision about how to make the current situation as safe as possible while the city also works on longer-term efforts.

That divide returned today when Council Member Sally Clark, who previously voted against Licata’s bill, said she worried about homeless encampments becoming permanent. Council Member Kshama Sawant shot back: “We should reject counterposing tent cities or more permanent solutions.” Working on deeply rooted problems, like the lack of jobs or affordable housing, Sawant argued, shouldn’t stop the city from allowing homeless encampments.

This fall, Licata said he planned to bring his tent city bill back to council, but his office told me last week he wanted to wait to hear from this task force before deciding whether to do that. Licata wasn’t at the task force’s presentation yesterday, though was updated on the recommendations, but with Sawant replacing former Council Member Richard Conlin, he may have the votes to reverse last year’s 5-4 vote.

Along with tent cities, the task force recommended other efforts, some more concrete and immediate than others:

• Opening new shelters for young adults, including one on Capitol Hill that allows pets (possibly at Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets) and one in south Seattle specifically for young people of color.

• Use city-owned buildings and properties, like community centers that close in the evenings, to create temporary shelters staffed by social service providers. The task force believes there are as many as 20 city-owned sites that could serve this purpose, housing 50 to 100 people each.

• Create a “toolkit” explaining how churches or private property owners who want to offer their space as a shelter go about setting that up. This could also include the city helping with costs like heating bills.

• “Fast track” permitting for shelters to get them up and running more quickly.

• Spend city money to “incentivize" more shelters in other cities around the region. The council included $175,000 for this effort in next year’s budget.

• “Explore incentives” to pay for 50 small houses, like those Olympia has offered to some chronically homeless.

Today, the mayor is expected to announce which of this task force’s ideas his office will pursue. Licata tells me he's waiting to see what the mayor says before deciding whether to bring back his bill from last year on homeless encampments.

While homelessness in the city has grown over the last few years—Clark called it "way beyond anything we've experienced as a community for a long, long time"—Lee, with the Low Income Housing Institute, says the city is fully capable of helping some of the most vulnerable populations. There are about 400 homeless families with children and about 120 homeless young adults in the city, she said: “That’s not unsolvable.”