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The City Council voted Tuesday afternoon to begin considering legislation (Council Bill 118794) that would, in my view, establish a new right for people struggling with homelessness to camp in tents or vehicles on public property across Seattle.

What do you think? Should the city government allow homeless camping throughout the city? Or, should we concentrate these campers in officially recognized and managed encampments at specific locations? Or, should we dramatically change our overall approach to homeless as I suggested in this August 5 opinion piece published in The Seattle Times?

My colleagues and I need to hear your opinion on these issues. Keep reading and you’ll find a link to each Councilmember’s and the Mayor’s email below.

I voted against the ordinance introduced on Tuesday and here’s why.

The proposed ordinance is not the balanced approach the people of Seattle deserve, an approach that carefully weighs and balances compassion with our public health and safety obligations. This ordinance tips this balance decidedly away from our public health and safety responsibilities and will do nothing to move people from homelessness to safe and appropriate housing.

As written, the ordinance essentially establishes for the first time a new right to camp in tents or vehicles on public space throughout the city, including in our parks and greenbelts, and on city sidewalks and planting strips. It defines “public space” as “any area that is owned, leased, maintained, controlled, or managed by a government or public entity.” This is a very broad definition that would include property owned by the city government, King County, the state of Washington, the Port of Seattle and the Seattle School District. The ordinance expressly provides that the city must make public spaces available for camping, and campers will have an indefinite right to remain so long as there is an inadequate supply of housing in the city.

In the event Seattle ever has sufficient housing for everyone who wants to live here, the right to camp on public property is reduced to just 30 days per location. So, if this ordinance is ever adopted as law, campers will not only have a right to camp indefinitely on public property throughout the city until housing is available, they will have this same right after housing becomes available for 30 days per location. In other words, homeless camping in tents or vehicles becomes permanent throughout Seattle.

The ordinance allows the city to remove campers from “unsafe,” “unsuitable” or “hazardous” sites, but only if certain conditions are first met, including that the city must find an alternative camping site. But for individuals camping in safe, suitable and nonhazardous locations—think a greenbelt or neighborhood park, a public sidewalk, or in an RV or van in front of your house—campers can only be removed if they are provided “adequate and accessible housing.”

Irresponsibly, the proposed ordinance requires that city taxpayers pay $250 per violation to individual campers if any of the detailed and onerous conditions of the ordinance are not adhered to, essentially creating a right of private civil action against the city government. This ordinance was introduced without the required fiscal note which would have helped council members understand the fiscal impact of this fee.

Finally, and perhaps most important, this ordinance doesn’t actually solve homelessness for anyone. It is wholly inconsistent with accepted and proven national best practices to address homelessness. We can do better without the very poor policy mandates required by this ordinance.

I don’t believe anyone can complain that city government hasn’t worked hard to address homelessness. Since I joined the Council in 2008, we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in direct assistance to our neighbors struggling with homelessness. We have increased this funding dramatically in the past couple of years, and yet the problem continues to grow. Now, we should ask what’s working and what’s not, then we should retool our efforts.

Consistent with what other cities have successfully done, we should switch to a very specific client-first focus instead of just funding organizations that do good work, giving highest priority to those who have been homeless the longest. We should be focused on data, measuring carefully which services are actually moving people from the street to homes. We should contract for performance, requiring organizations who receive taxpayer dollars to achieve measurable outcomes. We should wholeheartedly embrace the “housing first” philosophy which moves people to housing quickly without barriers to entry; we should stop funding organizations that erect these barriers (e.g., refusing those with criminal histories, addiction challenges, etc.). These are the steps that will actually end homelessness, not perpetuate it.

Later today, the Council will be briefed on evaluation work Mayor Murray, King County, All Home and United Way commissioned last year. I anticipate the national experts presenting their findings will advocate many of these same steps. Let’s use their work as stimulus for a healthy disruption of the status quo. Let’s retool our response to homelessness to increase the effectiveness of our work, help more people move from the streets into safe and secure housing and act on our values as a compassionate city.

As I wrote at the beginning, my colleagues and I would like to hear your opinion on these issues. Please share your thoughts. Here are the email addresses for each member of the City Council and the Mayor.

Mayor Edward Murray
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw
Councilmember Tim Burgess
Councilmember M. Lorena Gonzalez
Councilmember Bruce Harrell
Councilmember Lisa Herbold
Councilmember Rob Johnson
Councilmember Debora Juarez
Councilmember Mike O’Brien
Councilmember Kshama Sawant

Councilmember Tim Burgess

Phone: (206) 684-8806
Online: Council Website
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On my desk

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Looking for relief from the current presidential campaign ugliness? Take a look back to Robert Kennedy. Tye's book is an excellent reminder of what political leaders can accomplish.

Through the lens

If you have time and interest, you can watch an interview with Councilmember Bruce Harrell and me discussing the North Precinct, secure scheduling and homelessness.

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