Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Seattle Weighs Protections For People Living In Homeless Camps

Tents sit under an overpass in a Seattle homeless encampment known as 'The Jungle.'

The Seattle City Council is weighing new rights for homeless people living in camps along highways or deep in wooded parks.

On Tuesday, four council members introduced a lawthat would make it harder for city workers to disband the illegal clusters of tents and makeshift shelters that have grown as the region's homeless population has swelled.

If a camp isn't deemed unsafe, city workers would have to offer residents alternative housing and give them 30 days' written notice before clearing the site.

If the city considers a camp unsafe, workers could clear it with 48 hours' notice, but would still have to offer alternative housing. 

Seattle leaders have faced criticism for how city workers sweep through the camps, throwing away shelters and belongings in a practice critics call "disorganized" and "inhumane." Some say homeless people return to the sites almost immediately after they are cleared.

City workers have conducted 441 cleanup sweeps since the city declared a state of emergency on homelessness this past November. Critics say residents of the camps often get less than 72 hours' notice.

"Rather than providing shelter and housing, the city is spending literally millions of dollars on moving homeless people from one street corner to the next, increasing their hardship and not solving the problem," said Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who introduced the legislation with Councilmembers Rob Johnson, Lisa Herbold and Mike O'Brien.

The City Council agreed to consider the law, despite opposition from Councilmember Tim Burgess, who said it "essentially establishes a new right to camp on public property throughout the city." 

Representatives of Seattle's Chinatown-International District criticized the law as it was unveiled at a City Council meeting, saying encampments have hurt businesses and made their community less safe.

David Leong, president of the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, said elderly residents in the community carry extra money to diffuse potential confrontations with people living in the camps.

"They can't protect themselves," Leong said. "They're 80, 90 years old. They offer food, and some of the folks say, 'We don't want food; we want your money.'" 

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray's office is doing its own review of the camp cleanups. Murray convened a task force Aug. 31 to offer reforms to the city's policies, and said he expects recommendations in September.

The City Council's legislation may be discussed at a Sept. 14 meeting of the Human Services and Public Health Committee.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.