King County Council rejects attempt to remove public homeless encampments

MyNorthwest Reporter

The King County Council has rejected a proposal intended to address homeless encampments in unincorporated King County.

The motion, which did not appear before the full council and failed at the local services committee level, would have formally provided guidelines to the King County executive’s office on the forced removal of encampments from public land.

If adopted, the proposal would establish certain thresholds which, if met, would allow the county to remove publicly placed encampments. Those thresholds largely pertain to public safety with regard to unsanitary environments or reports of criminal activity not related to possession.

The legislation was crafted with implicit acknowledgement of recent court rulings that have established a precedent for the non-criminalization of public encampments when suitable housing alternatives are not available, the most notable being Martin v. City of Boise.

“There are a number of issues should the motion be adopted,” Breanne Schuster, staff attorney with ACLU-WA, told MyNorthwest. “The most obvious of which is that the county does not have sufficient capacity for folks that are living on public property. The crux of the Martin v. Boise decision is that a local government cannot criminalize people for being homeless or engaging in behavior related to that status: having to sleep outside, sheltering oneself outside, or otherwise engaging in survival conduct.”

The proposal acknowledged that the county would only be able to escalate to encampment sweeps in the event said housing alternatives exist. However, the legislation was not crafted in tandem with the King County Regional Housing Authority, a primary point of contention as the council discussed and ultimately voted down the legislation.

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Referencing a study reported to Seattle City Council in October of this year, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay noted that the city’s homeless population far exceeds its housing capacity, finding that city funded outreach received more than two-fold the number of requests for shelter than beds actually available.

“I would like to know more about what this means in practice, when we consistently don’t have the supply to meet the demands,” Zahilay said in council session Nov. 30. “In a housing crisis, when we clearly don’t have enough to provide for people who are unhoused, what does it mean to refrain from clearing encampments?  There are multiple times the amount of … people requesting shelter, especially permanent, supportive shelter, than what exists.”

The vote was split two to two, with Councilmembers Reagan Dunn, the proposal’s sponsor, and Kathy Lambert representing the only affirmative votes.

“There’s a lack of access to public facilities, parks, sidewalks, public buildings, where homeless are blocking them,” Dunn said. “So I don’t think we can any longer ignore these homeless encampments and just hope they go away.”

“This legislation is not only a step in the right direction for our county … but also provides a way to respond to our constituents who are also concerned about the encampments in their neighborhoods,” Dunn continued. “And when we allow these encampments in suburban neighborhoods, they can become a safety issue for families.”

After the proposal failed, Dunn and Lambert released a joint statement condemning the failure to move the motion forward.

“It is disheartening that the committee would refuse to even engage in a conversation about how to provide housing and support services to people currently living in county parks or other county-owned property. Our parks, roads, and trails are overly burdened by tents, trash, and crime. It is past time we found a compassionate, common sense solution to maintaining our public spaces for everyone.”

“The committee’s rejection today of creating basic guidelines for what conditions make it allowable to remove homeless encampments—such as violence, crime, or the presence of untreated sewage or biohazardous waste—is neglectful of our duty to the families and businesses who now must bear the burden of these conditions with no recourse.”

“It is not compassionate to look away from the growing problem of homeless encampments—it is indifference. Our communities and our most vulnerable deserve better.”