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Seattle Lawmakers To Revise Homeless Encampment Rules Amid Backlash

Will James
Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw speaks to reporters on Oct. 13 about the proposed encampment law.

Seattle lawmakers are stepping back to revise a law that would effectively allow people without homes to camp in some public spaces.

Since the City Council took up the proposal Sept. 6, a growing number of residents have expressed fear it would make tents fixed features of parks and sidewalks.

About 20,000 people have signed a petition against an early version of the law. A spokesman for Mayor Ed Murray said the mayor would veto the legislation. Councilmembers said they have received thousands of emails and hundreds of phone calls from critics. 

This week, two councilmembers unveiled new drafts of the law -- with different definitions of what would qualify as "suitable" places to camp. The council's Human Services and Public Health Committee is scheduled to discuss the legislation at a special meeting Friday morning.

The discussion comes days after city workers tried to clear the last residents of an encampment known as "The Jungle" under Interstate 5. Seattle officials suspended the cleanup after a police officer fatally shot a man nearby. 

One proposal by Councilmember Sally Bagshaw would take all parkland, restored natural areas, and sidewalks off the list of "suitable" locations -- until city officials identify any acceptable areas for camping within parks.

"I'm leaving in my legislation proposal space for the mayor to come back and say, 'There may be places,'" she said Thursday. "But starting off, no parks, no sports fields, no play areas, and no environmentally-sensitive green spaces." 

Another proposal by Councilmember Mike O'Brien would continue to allow camping in some parkland and on sidewalks that are not in front of homes. Actively-used areas of parks and restored natural areas would be off-limits. 

O'Brien said Thursday that if too much land is made off-limits, "I'm left with a situation that tonight I have 3,000 people that don't have shelter, they're going to sleep somewhere in the city, and I just made it illegal for them to sleep anywhere in the city."

Columbia Legal Services, the Washington state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, and other advocacy groups helped draft the law amid criticism of the city's practices for clearing encampments. Advocates for the homeless say the so-called "sweeps" happen without proper warning and belongings are thrown away. Critics also say the sweeps simply force camps from one site to another.

The law would set rules for when and how city workers disband encampments. If a camp is deemed to be in a safe and suitable spot, people living there would have to be offered housing before their belongings are cleared. If a camp is in a suitable spot but "hazardous" conditions exist, people living there would be offered supplies and a chance to clean it up.

Bagshaw, the chairperson of the Human Services and Public Health Committee, said members have agreed to hold off on voting on the legislation Friday.

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.