Seattle leaders urge council to not ban homeless camp sweeps

Nov 1, 2017, 5:31 PM | Updated: 5:49 pm
Seattle mayor, Navigation Team, Mayor Murray, sweeps, 911 response...
Seattle police officers Wes Phillips, left, and Tori Newborn talk with Corvin Dobschutz as part of Seattle’s Navigation Team. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Seattle Mayor Tim Burgess, the city’s firefighter union, and nine officials are urging the council not go through with a ban of homeless encampment sweeps.

“Should the city council vote to adopt the proviso as proposed by Councilmembers Sawant, O’Brien, and Harris-Talley, this effective work will stop and the public health and safety risks inherently associated with these encampments will dramatically increase to the detriment of the people of Seattle — including, of course, the campers themselves,” Mayor Burgess writes in one of many letters to the council from city leaders.

RELATED: Council member wants to defund Navigation Team

The city council is currently crafting the 2018 budget and setting policy for the upcoming year. Within the proposed budget is a ban on sweeping unsanctioned homeless encampments on public property. The policy is backed by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant, Kirsten Harris-Talley, and Mike O’Brien. They propose to provide portable bathrooms and garbage service to the camps instead.

Seattle is currently using a Navigation Team that engages the homeless community and camps. It works over weeks with people living in camps, connecting them to services, better places to live or shelter, and keeps contact with the city’s most vulnerable. Sawant proposes to nix the Navigation Team. The city also has developed a plan for handling private property at the camps. And Seattle already offers some trash services.

In a memo obtained by KING 5, Burgess writes that there are about 400 unsanctioned homeless camps in Seattle, posing health risks to residents and campers.

“The city government cannot ignore or tolerate these risks,” he writes. “To do so would be to abdicate our obligation to maintain a safe and peaceful city … encampment removals only occur when there are specific identifiable public health and safety risks. Since the removal protocols were refined last year, and since the Navigation Team began operating earlier this year … when conditions mandate that an unauthorized encampment be removed, nearly 40 percent of the residents are accepting the services being offered.”

“In addition to the human factors involved here, so far this year our city workers have removed over 6,000,000 pounds of trash and human waste from the unauthorized encampments that have been cleaned,” Burgess writes. “The public health risks posed by this trash should not be minimized. The removal practices being implemented by the city workers are humane, well planned, and effective.”

Seattle leaders oppose sweeps ban

KING 5 reports that not only Mayor Burgess wrote to the city council, but also leaders of nine Seattle departments, including: the police department; fire department; parks and recreation; department of transportation; budget office; public utilities; finance and administrative services; human services; and homeless emergency response. City officials wrote in a nine-page letter:

We are deeply concerned about GS 240-1-A-1-2018, sponsored by Councilmembers Sawant, O’Brien, and Harris-Talley, which would undermine the Navigation Team’s ongoing efforts to address the homelessness crisis. We believe such a proposal would harm the City’s interests in helping move more unsheltered.

The Seattle Firefighters Union wrote another letter to Councilmember Sawant, also expressing concern with the proposed legislation that would prohibit sweeps of unsanctioned homeless encampments.

Every week we respond to hundreds of homeless individuals with acute medical or emergency needs and we see firsthand the tragic, unsanitary, unhealthy, unsafe, and often horrific conditions that many of the unsheltered individuals in our City endure. An increasing number of these emergencies are at unauthorized encampments in fundamentally unhealthy and unsafe conditions. While there are no easy solutions, letting vulnerable individuals live in these conditions without intervention cannot be the answer.

Jesus Aguirre, director of Seattle Parks and Recreation, also took the time to write an additional letter about the proposed legislation. He reminds the council that the 130 grants that have funded the city’s acquisition and development of park land require the city to maintain the parks as originally funded — which does not include allowing encampments on the property.

“Failure to comply with the long-term obligations of an RCO grant has certain consequences … It also may jeopardize future RCO grant funding for the city,” Aguirre writes.

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Seattle leaders urge council to not ban homeless camp sweeps