Even on private property, some Seattle City Council members trying to limit removals of unauthorized homeless encampments

SEATTLE -- There is a new measure -- supported by some City Council members -- that would essentially remove public safety concerns as a reason to clean up a homeless encampment.

On South Weller Street in Seattle, the tents block sidewalks and border the road.

“It`s not a homelessness issue, it`s a drug and mental health issue, the majority of the reason why the folks are out here,” James Wong said.

James Wong is the CEO of Vibrant Cities and he says two unsanctioned encampments have been wreaking havoc in the Chinatown-International District.

“We have a lot of low-income senior citizens in this neighborhood and they are worried to walk the streets,” Wong said.

He says things are about to get worse for the entire city if a proposal by Seattle Council Member Tammy Morales goes through.

“It`s going to allow unauthorized encampments not only in the CID but it`s going to spread throughout the entire city of Seattle, any public park, any public area and even private property,” Wong said.

Wong on Wednesday called the proposal "absolutely crazy."

Morales’ measure is cosponsored by Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant. It aims to limit the work of Seattle’s Navigation Team that has been working for years doing outreach at the hundreds of unsanctioned homeless encampments across the city.

The team is also on the front lines removing and cleaning up the sites that have been deemed too dangerous to stay.

Morales’ measure does make several exceptions including regulations that encampments cannot block an entrance or exit to a building. The path of travel has to be 4 feet wide or greater for sidewalks. They cannot pose a fire or safety hazard or be located in a children’s play area.

“This legislation is the beginning of allowing any type of camping anywhere,” Wong said.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Office also has major concerns over the proposal.

Deputy Mayor Mike Fong sent a letter to the council on Tuesday expressing concern on what he called an extreme set of exceptions that would allow encampments to set up on public and private properties, allowing tents and other structures to block sidewalks and public right of ways.

Fong says the measure did not provide resources for support, hygiene and waste removal. City leaders say it will also remove public safety as a consideration for encampment removals.

In the 20 years at City Hall, this proposal stands out to Fong.

“This bill is as poorly drafted and analyzed as I've ever seen and fails to recognize basic and legitimate operational, legal, and policy considerations, without any consultation with the impacted city departments,” Fong said.

Morales and Mosqueda declined to give an interview on Wednesday but Sawant released this statement.

“In 2017, the People’s Budget movement and my office proposed to proviso City funds to prohibit the inhumane and ineffective sweeps of homeless neighbors. In 2018, we proposed to use the millions wasted on sweeps for affordable housing. Last year, we proposed to use the millions spent on sweeps for tiny house villages. In each case, politicians spouted off rhetoric but did little to actually stop the sweeps.

This legislation my office is cosponsoring is a temporary restriction of sweeps during the COVID emergency, which is obviously crucial both for homeless neighbors and for public health. Mayor Durkan is shamefully opposing even this minimal measure. We clearly cannot depend on the Democratic Party establishment. We need continued grassroots momentum from working people to stop the sweeps permanently, and to win the Amazon Tax on big business to fund a major expansion of affordable social housing.”

The city says they are only removing encampments right now that pose serious public safety and health concerns. They are worried that as more people cluster together at encampments diseases like Hepatitis A and COVID-19 will spread more easily.

Mayor Durkan defended the work of the navigation team in an interview with Q13 News last week.

“Those people work so hard and they are on the front lines of one of the toughest jobs in this pandemic,” Durkan said.

On Wednesday the navigation team was seen working along South King Street removing tents and cleaning up. The city says a homicide involving residents had occurred there and Seattle Police officers were witnessing an increase in criminal activity.

The encampment on South Weller Street will be removed on Thursday. City leaders say a woman was found shot in the chest at that encampment. They also had 3 reports of shots fired.  Rape and aggravated assaults have also been reported.

The city says there were 45 tents at the South Weller Street location with more than one person sharing a tent in some cases. The navigation team has done repeated outreach hoping people there will accept the help being offered. So far the city says 26 people have been referred to tiny home villages and other enhanced shelters.

“When we know lawlessness is available and you can put up your tent everywhere, guess what is going to happen? They are going to put their tent everywhere,” Wong said.

Morales’ measure will come up for discussion in committee on May 27th and a final vote is expected the following Monday, June 1.

Both meetings will have virtual public comments.

The sign-up for public comment opens 2 hours before the meetings and you can sign up here.