After Murray’s threats, council backpedaled on homeless proposal

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The first plan Councilmember Sally Bagshaw devised to deal with The Jungle – one of Seattle's largest homeless encampments — came as a response to Mayor Ed Murray's deadline driven proposal to close the encampment. But the plan sent the mayor off the rails, spurring him to send a series of angry and at times threatening text messages to the councilmember.

But despite Councilmember Bagshaw’s apparent incredulity to his response (“Is this really from you Mr. Mayor?” she wrote) she would nevertheless agree to negotiate her resolution with the Mayor’s Office. Compared to the first draft of her proposals – provided to Crosscut by an individual involved in reviewing the resolution — the result was a document far lighter on specifics. The council unanimously passed that resolution on May 31.

While the council and the mayor seemed to come together (albeit awkwardly) on the resolution, its changes were not so well received by community driven advocacy organizations like the Public Defenders Association, the Coalition to End Homeless and ACLU.

The first draft, for example, would've made removing people from The Jungle contingent on providing them “a twenty-four hour a day housing option that is accessible to the individual based on the individual’s limitations and personal history, can accommodate the resident during the daytime, will allow residents to store their belongings, allow couples and families to remain together, and allow individuals to keep their pets.”

Seattle cannot currently provide all of this to every person in the Jungle, so this initial resolution was de facto saying: “First build the system of support, then you can make people leave.”

By contrast, the final version made far less specific references to “meaningful offers of appropriate shelter,” leaving the possibility that emergency shelters could be considered “meaningful.” Deputy Director of the Human Services Department Jason Johnson has said they believe there is enough emergency shelter capacity to accept everyone in the Jungle. Therefore, the resolution allowed a sweep of the Jungle to proceed sooner rather than later.

But Councilmember Bagshaw and others have argued emergency shelters do not fit the bill as “meaningful shelter.” Advocating for a fix to the Jungle, Jennifer Shaw of the ACLU has argued “it has to be a policy solution that will end further sweeps until there are actual places to go. And by places to go, I don’t mean emergency shelters. I mean actual pathways to permanent housing.”

Additionally, the original draft advocated for a “section-by-section” approach to cleaning up the area. As crews did the cleaning, residents would be temporarily moved to a different section of the Jungle before being allowed back to their original place. Much of the rationale for clearing the Jungle has been to allow city workers to deal with its garbage, including in some places human waste and needles. The original draft was a recognition that parts of the Jungle need cleaning, but that this could be accomplished without removing people.

The final draft makes mention of cleaning up human waste and needles, but does not offer any sort of section-by-section approach, nor any help for people to temporarily relocate within the Jungle.

The last major piece missing from the final resolution was the development of a taskforce. It would consist of “organizations and individuals that have an established history of providing services to homeless individuals, or other relevant expertise.” The resolution as passed pledged to seek advice from those same people, but did not mention a taskforce.

With the disclosure of Murray’s irate texts to Councilmember Bagshaw, the immediate question became: So what? Murray’s temper is no secret, and plenty of successful politicians show flashes of anger. And Murray and Bagshaw did eventually come together on the resolution. For those who favor the resolution — which leaves the door pretty wide open to continue to move people out of the Jungle — this is a win, therefore making his anger a non-story.

But those who liked the details found in the first draft are far less likely to see this as honest negotiation. Most notably, Murray threatened to end all clean ups of homeless encampments and pull police off enforcement in response to Bagshaw’s resolution. Murray’s history of doing exactly those things — carrying out cleanups and committing police to enforcement — makes the threat particularly out-of-character, and at odds with his typical approach.

Bagshaw is a longtime political ally of the mayor, especially in the days when the trope of the so-called Sawant bloc of the council seemed more pronounced. But as chair of the Human Services and Public Health committee, she's also the most likely to speak with community activists on the matter of homelessness, who are historically not as likely to align with Murray.

The first draft of the resolution represented a pretty significant step away from Murray, which perhaps explains his frantic texts ("I am stunned," he wrote). Now, however, it has swung back slightly in the other direction, which is frustrating to groups like the ACLU.

It's hard to know exactly how much Murray's anger played into that shift. But what it will do — and already has done — is calcify the feeling among community stakeholders that their voice has gone unheard and that Murray is trying to solve the problem on his own.

"There are an awful lot of people who are willing and able to come to the table who have not been invited to do so," said Executive Director of the Coalition to End Homelessness Alison Eisinger in public testimony. Agree or not with Murray's ultimate goal, selling it as a true collaboration just got harder.

  

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