Mayor Ed Murray’s office released details on new guidelines for outreach and cleanup of unauthorized homeless encampments Friday evening, calling for almost $7.7 million to improve encampment cleanups and expand shelter options for people experiencing homelessness.
The plan responds to many of the issues raised by homeless advocates by requesting four new authorized encampments, expanding services offered at existing shelters and providing new garbage and shower services to people living outdoors.
It also promises to leave encampments be if they “do not pose an imminent health or safety risk” or do not “unlawfully obstruct a public use,” provided the city does not have anywhere else to put people.
However, it leaves open several crucial questions through lack of definition, such as what constitutes a “public use” or a “safer alternative” place for a person to live compared to an encampment. Those phrases are important because they can trigger an immediate cleanup at the site or after a 72-hour window.
It also defers the question of setting exact protocols to an internal rulemaking process, potentially problematic given that existing protocols were inconsistently followed.
The plan, called “Bridging the Gap to Pathways Home,” attempts to supplement two other efforts put forward by councilmembers Sally Bagshaw and Mike O’Brien.
Those pieces of legislation were evolutions of an original bill submitted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Columbia Legal Services, among others.
Both bills are stalled until Bagshaw brings them to a vote in the Human Services and Public Health Committee, which she chairs. She has since stated that will not happen until after the budget process finishes, which means that the mayor’s plan will be the law of the land until at least December.
Murray’s proposal treads much of the same ground as Bagshaw’s and O’Brien’s bills insofar as it establishes priorities for encampment cleanups based on health and safety and gives campers a 72-hour window to leave under most circumstances if the camp isn’t considered to be a hazard.
Items collected during the cleanup will be stored for 60 days free of charge, and a new delivery service will be established to help return possessions that have been taken during a sweep.
Currently, people have to pick up their a storage facility in SoDo, a process made more difficult if the individual has difficulty proving which items belong to them.
Murray’s strategy goes further than either Bagshaw’s or O’Brien’s proposals in putting $900,000 into new authorized encampments, a move that Councilmember Tim Burgess has openly supported.
Two of those encampments would be “low barrier,” meaning that they would accommodate people with substance abuse disorders.
Most shelters and existing tent encampments prohibit even the use of legal substances.