The Seattle City Council has approved legislation that will allow the creation of three additional tent encampments for homeless people and, for the first time, allow the encampments to legally operate on privately owned property and city-owned property as easily as tent cities operate on religious property today.
The Seattle City Council unanimously approved the legislation March 30 to cheers from a large crowd of homeless people and advocates at city hall.
The city council also narrowly passed an amendment to the encampment ordinance by Councilmember Kshama Sawant that directs city staff to conduct an environmental review to determine what impacts tent encampments would have on residential property. The study would allow the city council to expand its encampment ordinance to include residential property later if councilmembers choose to.
Councilmembers Sawant, Sally Bagshaw, Bruce Harrell, Nick Licata, Tom Rasmussen and Mike O’Brien supported the amendment. Councilmembers Tim Burgess, Sally Clark and Jean Godden opposed.
Tent-encampment advocates lauded the decision, cheering loudly after the unanimous vote.
“I am so excited, I feel like my knees are dancing,” said Jackie O’Bryan, president of The Ave Foundation, which established a protest tent encampment on University Way in 2014, just as the University of Washington school year was starting. “I think it’s very important to remember that human beings are human beings. I feel like this passing today shows a representation of the city that I call home showing that we do value human lives.”
William Price, a participant of SHARE, which hosts shelters across the city and two encampments, said that encampments are safe, cost-efficient and increasingly necessary to protect people living outdoors. He said that 16 people have died living outdoors in 2015 already.
“Encampments create safe communities within our community,” he said.
Until this legislation passed, religious organizations hosted most tent encampments in Seattle. Karen Studders, a community member and supporter of the legislation, said this is a problem.
“It is not fair to expect faith communities to carry out the responsibility of our government,” she said to the city council before the vote.
Mayor Ed Murray introduced the ordinance in January, which streamlines the permitting process for encampments. Murray announced the legislation at the recommendation of an emergency task force he convened at the end of 2014 to come up with immediate things the city could do to address homelessness.
The ordinance allows up to three encampments of up to 100 people each to operate on privately and publicly owned land, excluding residentially zoned property. The encampments can stay at a site for 12 months and would have to be at least a mile away from each other. Encampment organizers could apply to renew their stay on a site once for an additional year.
Camps could operate on non-religious property before, but would have to acquire a temporary-use permit which is more difficult to acquire and could be appealed. The new system creates a streamlined permitting process, without an appeal.
The legislation requires that encampments provide access to case management services and collect data on residents for the federal Homeless Management Information Systems, known in King County as Safe Harbors.
The legislation offers public support for a survival mechanism that has been controversial in the past. Just two years ago, the Seattle City Council rejected a similar proposal by Councilmember Licata in a five-to-four vote. The council also spent $500,000 to move Nickelsville off of city-owned property on West Marginal Way near West Seattle.
The political winds have changed on encampments since then. Four of the councilmembers — Clark, Burgess, Godden and Rasmussen — opposed the legislation in 2013 but supported the new encampment ordinance this year. Clark said that the growing number of homeless people living outdoors prompted her to change her mind and endorse encampments.
Before voting for the ordinance, Clark explained that she had expected homelessness to peak with the recession.
“The recession, according to economists, is long over,” Clark said, noting that homelessness has grown recently due to fundamental shifts in the economy. She said encampments are not ideal, but preferable to people living outside of a community. “They are not the answer to homelessness, and we should not be talking about them as an answer to homelessness.”
Sawant linked the change to the 2013 election, when she took office as a socialist, ousting former Councilmember Richard Conlin, who had opposed the encampment ordinance in 2013.
“What has changed is the political mood of the city,” she said.