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Tim Burgess
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Seattle council member drops the mic at homeless meeting

City council meetings rarely get an applause and cheers. After all, they’re slow, bureaucratic and usually nit-picky about rules and regulations. But Council Member Tim Burgess got an applause Thursday as he left the room, leaving a comment about homeless camping in Seattle.

Homeless ordinance should cover ‘gap’ until Seattle can address long-term homeless solutions

“In 2013, we had an ordinance presented to us that would allow city authorized encampments. The council defeated that ordinance at the time. Mayor Murray and others brought a different encampment ordinance back in 2014 which we passed. Because it had much better management controls, accountability and reporting standards. Our experience with those encampments has generally been positive. It has allowed for a place for people to go. And a much, much better approach to this issue is to build on that experience and perhaps increase the number — I think we are at 3.5 camps today … it would be much better in my view to build on that experience as opposed to taking the approach this ordinance proposes, which would allow this kind of camping in many, many parts of our city. And I think we create all kinds of problems if we do that.

The quick passing comment garnered an applause from the audience in the chamber.

Tim Burgess and the homeless camping issue

Council Member Tim Burgess is positioning himself opposite many of his counterparts across the dais on the issue of a proposed homeless bill. He was the only council member to vote against accepting the legislation drafted by the ACLU.

Now, as the council runs that legislation through its committees, he has continued his dissenting voice on the matter. Some think it will act as a buffer until Seattle figures out how to better handle the homeless crisis, and others say it will allow camping anywhere in town — Council Member Tim Burgess is in the latter crowd.

The diversity of voices was evident at the council’s human services and public health committee meeting Thursday. The core issue was how the council will determine what a “suitable” location is for people to camp in the city. The proposed bill stipulates suitable and unsuitable locations for homeless camping in Seattle will be a determining factor if they can remain. The city will be able to oust people from unsuitable locations, and people will be allowed to remain in suitable spots. But how to make that distinction is debatable.

“In discussing suitable locations, I would like us to stop using the word ‘safe,'” Council Member Lisa Herbold said at the meeting. “I don’t think it is safe to sleep outside, ever.”

“I will say as a light push back, that many people outside now have said to me that they feel safer outside than they do inside shelters,” Council Member Sally Bagshaw responded. “So it’s not really up to us to determine.”

Bagshaw also said that the committee had a lot of work to determine what is suitable. For example, she noted that once city and state officials clean out the city’s infamous stretch called the Jungle — the city calls it the I-5 East Duwamish Greenbelt — that location may serve the needs of homeless campers should the city provide services there. The area runs along I-5 through Seattle. Many camps have set up under the freeway and in the treeline.

The area was brought into public attention over the past year after a multiple murder occurred there. Since then, the crime and conditions have become well-known. City and state officials have been moving people out of the area, and cleaning it — there are tons of trash, hypodermic needles and human waste throughout.

Bagshaw said:

“It may be that once under I-5 is cleaned up and the garbage and human waste is removed – and I’m way out on thin ice at this moment – maybe for the interim it would be a place that we would say, ‘You know what, it’s dry.’ And if we put in garbage cans and porta-johns at the street ends, maybe we would decide, for the interim, that it would be suitable.

The council said it will have to further consider if it will leave the suitable vs. unsuitable determination up to a committee. Other issue also linger, such as how to handle areas of the city where multiple agencies have authority. The Jungle, for example, has Washington State Department of Transportation right of ways, and parks department ownership, as well as city land. The proposed bill would also not affect places like the Port of Seattle or the University of Washington. Therefore, how will Seattle police handle calls to assist those agencies in these matters if the port or UW conflicts with this policy?

Council Member Tim Burgess also pressed another point. He is hopeful that the council will include a sunset date on the ordinance — so the city will not permanently allow camping in town. Bagshaw seemed open to that idea. She said the proposed bill should cover a gap between now and when the city can provide permanent housing solutions.

“We are essentially voting to allow permanent camping in the city on public property that the city defines as suitable,” Burgess said. “That’s one of my core concerns about his ordinance. It suggests that our response to homelessness is to allow camping in the city. It is something we have not done today, that is not supported by federal policies on homelessness and something that other cities have tried and experimented with – one of them just south of Seattle in Portland – and they are running away from it as fast as possible because of the problems it creates.”

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