Following a roundtable discussion with 12 service providers and advocates for the homeless last Friday, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw floated a test balloon over the weekend: an “all hands on deck” blitz to find as much vacant space, both inside and out, the city can provide for the homeless. The goal is to “create spaces for at least 1,000 more people right now,” she said in an e-mail to the roundtable attendees.
In addition to the hunt for space, Bagshaw proposed adding dumpsters for needles and port-a-potties for bathroom waste in areas they are needed by the homeless. She also suggested revising the city’s cleanup policy to require outreach workers to contact individuals three times, educating them on the services available to them, before moving them out from illegal encampments.
While she didn’t commit to anything, in an interview she expressed openness to the idea of safe spaces for drug users. “Part of me acknowledges we need to do that,” she said. “There are much better places to use drugs than in the dirt.”
The proposals are a reaction to backlash against the city’s cleanups – or “sweeps” among those opposed – of unsanctioned homeless encampments. The Mayor’s office has maintained that these cleanups allow for the city to connect people with services while simultaneously eliminating unsafe encampments along and underneath highways.
But while there is general support for the philosophy of cleaning up (although not necessarily evicting) encampments and connecting people with services, there is deep skepticism for what the city actually does or can do. This skepticism is largely rooted in the general consensus that there are not enough spaces or resources available to achieve the intended effect of these cleanups. As a result, said ACLU’s Jennifer Shaw on Friday, “we’re concerned the practice of sweeping people out of encampments uses city services to move people around the city.”
Bagshaw agreed, and said "we are not solving either the short term nor long term problem by chasing people from one site to the next and taking their belongings."
With her proposal, Bagshaw is aiming to capitalize on what seemed to be the spirit of cooperation at Friday’s meeting, drumming up enthusiasm to find lots, empty gyms, churches, warehouses or anywhere the city can throw down some cots or build tiny houses. “Why couldn’t I use that?” she said during an interview, looking out her west facing office window into the delayed Civic Square project across from City Hall. In searching for new shelter for the homeless, she believed the city should look at “every space that’s even plausible.”
In an e-mailed response to Bagshaw, head of YouthCare Melinda Giovengo praised the council member's approach, and ended by writing, “You are my hero and I mean it.” But there is skepticism as well, even if paired with optimism for the city’s general direction.
“I think that they are sort of micro-improvements,” said Director of Real Change Tim Harris of Bagshaw's proposals. “There’s the piece about bringing 1000 people indoors. I think everybody can get behind that, but I think the execution of what that means is something that we’re a lot skeptical about because we don’t see where the resources are for that.”
For Harris, his top priority is a revision of the multi-departmental administrative rules (MDAR) on encampments, written in 2008 under then-mayor Greg Nickels. “One of the issues that we have with [Bagshaw’s] summary is that it doesn’t address one of the biggest problems with how they’re conducting their sweeps.” Harris has been vocal for years about revising MDAR, specifically regarding the differentiation between “encampments” of three tents and “camps” of one or two tents. Harris believes “camps” do not benefit from the “niceties” – such as connection to outreach workers -- of “encampments.”
Harris also dislikes a clause in the rules that if an “encampment has been observed on the property three or more times within any 60 day period” the site may be cleared without prior notice.
On whether revising the MDARs should be a priority for the council, Harris said, “It's an integrity call. There's stuff happening off radar that's more about moving people than helping them. If they want real data about outcomes for people moved out of tents, they have to amend the protocols.”
Bagshaw agrees that the distinction between encampments and camps is “silly.” And her proposal that outreach workers connect three times with encampments before they’re moved is a departure from the current MDAR. Nevertheless, she’s hesitant to get into a fight over the language of the rules, arguing that efforts like opening up 1,000 new beds trump the protracted political fight of an MDAR revision. And despite Harris’s advocacy, three mayoral administrations have apparently felt the same, steering clear of opening up the books.
There is a tough-love to Bagshaw’s proposal. “We’re going to offer space,” she said, “and if they don’t take it, they’re going to have to leave.” Additionally, beds don’t answer questions of how to treat the drug addicted or mentally ill. These spaces would likely be self-policed in the same way SHARE/WHEEL does, which would mean no drugs, alcohol or obvious intoxication. Where that leaves those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction is unclear.
The Human Services committee will meet Wednesday to nail down a more specific plan for spending the Mayor's State of Emergency money. It will include $2.9 million in prevention efforts, $2.5 million to move people out of encampments and $2.2 million for meeting basic, short-term needs. Beyond Wednesday's meeting is more balancing the patience service providers say they need with the inherent impatience of problem solving in politics.