At noon on Tuesday, Sept. 27, members of the task force on unsanctioned encampment cleanup protocols disbanded.
The assembly “did its best” despite an “intractable” problem, the kind of phrases you expect to hear a coach tell a sideline reporter as his team runs off the field after a loss.
The task force produced a statement of wordsmithed principles meant to guide elected officials as they attempt to balance health and safety concerns advanced by neighborhoods and business interests with the human misery caused by the haphazard system of cleanups, aka “sweeps.”
These include high-level principles that acknowledge the homelessness crisis and the destructive nature of existing protocols while giving a conceptual outline of where homeless people will be left alone, where they will be asked to move along and what kind of warning they’ll get to do so.
They also put forward a “sunset clause,” cementing the idea that these new rules were meant to deal with what Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw refers to as “the gap”: the time between now and when resources to implement Pathways Forward, the new plan to combat homelessness in Seattle, come online.
Left on the table: any real discussion of operational protocols (the “how”) and $2.8 million included in the Mayor Ed Murray’s budget to put their recommendations into place (the “how much”). The latter was no fault of the task force: The mayor released his budget the previous day without notice to the group that they had three hours to propose something for the cash.
Fortunately, Murray already had ideas, at least according to the executive summary of his budget. He plans to use the money to improve outreach, storage of people’s belongings and creating safe spaces for people to stay during the day.
The announcement seemed par for the course given the rough patch that the task force had met up to that point.
Murray proposed the task force at the end of July after taking political blows from advocacy and unsheltered communities for his hard stance on the encampment called “The Jungle,” euphemistically rechristened the “East Duwamish Greenbelt Encampment.”
The full roster of participants wasn’t released until the day of the first meeting on Aug. 31. By then, the Human Services & Public Health committee, chaired by Bagshaw, had already begun a parallel process looking at legislation written by a coalition of advocacy organizations.
Some people and organizations the mayor recruited agreed to be part of the task force. Others said no. The rest were never asked.
At the same time, a City Council; resolution sat on the committee’s docket that would force the remaining residents of The Jungle out of their secluded area under I-5.
The process of this task force was “very unusual,” said cochair David Moseley, a veteran of the nine-month Housing and Livability Agenda (HALA) task force.
“This was compressed, with a lot of moving parts,” Moseley said.
The task force met six times for approximately 15 hours of public debate and discussion, roughly a quarter of which were given over to informational staff presentations, public comment and rest breaks. Presentations tried to give a sense of the current protocols, which were arbitrary, and existing options for homeless people.
Proceedings were “public” in that a member of the public could attend, not that the government made any effort to make the process open. Neither meeting notices nor agendas were posted online, start times shifted arbitrarily and two of the meetings began in the morning and lasted between three and four hours.
A stenographer was present at all sessions. Members struggled with themselves and each other to define seemingly innocuous words like “unsuitable” and “unsafe,” items that are now left to the City Council, and argued over competing perceptions of reality.
Are there enough shelter beds for everyone, or are providers struggling to find space? Should people be allowed to camp, despite laws prohibiting the practice? If so, where?
Conversations became so bogged down in weeds and contrasting philosophies that little progress happened on the principles — overarching criteria that any future legislation should meet — until the fifth meeting.
Leslie Smith, of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, circulated an 11-point document formulated by the self-styled “Coalition of the Reasonable,” a group technically separate from the task force that nonetheless had some significant crossover in membership.
The Coalition convened for 10 days to come up with its list and had only finalized it at 8:30 p.m. the night before, Smith said.
Despite grumblings about the secret group, the principles became a working document that was edited down to the final work product.
This didn’t satisfy most members of the task force, who felt that its initial purpose — figuring out when a person should be moved and what the process for moving them might be — had been lost.
“It seems like we shifted from protocols to principles,” said task force member Sheila Sebron, of the Health Care for the Homeless Network, at the last meeting. “I didn’t want to spend the entire time on principles.”
The group did its best to handle the friction between the housed and unhoused populations of Seattle, neither of which are getting their needs met under existing conditions, said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.
“It was a narrowly cast conversation,” Eisinger said. “People came to the table in good faith to address the crisis situation.”
The task force will not meet again, not formally. Members were encouraged to meet on their own and make comments during the ongoing legislative process and during budget hearings, as they felt moved.
“Thanks for effort,” Moseley told them. “While we didn’t accomplish everything we hoped to accomplish, we focused the conversation that I think moved the ball forward a little bit. At the end of the day maybe that’s all we can really do.”