Pioneer Square merchants ask for limits to homeless camping

SEATTLE - Homeless campers in Pioneer Square have found a legal loophole that allows them to pitch their tents atop city sidewalks. The situation has merchants calling for limits, but city laws don't allow police to take much action.

The tents can be expansive and often clutter the sidewalks outside the former Masins furniture store on Second Avenue South, which Rosa Mitsumasu Scotti oversees. Often those tents are still there when stores and businesses open.

"It's been a challenge for us to determine a creative way to have people clearing out from the door," Mitsumasu Scotti said. "It's been a little difficult."

Seattle is no stranger to homelessness, but tenants who now occupy the Masins site say these sidewalk encampments present safety issues. They also don't help the businesses they block.

"We have seen a lot more larger encampments, especially along this side lately," said Lindsey Engh, who works with Mitsumasu Scotti as part of 220 & Change.

Crews with the Metropolitan Improvement District can be called in to help, but large homeless occupations trigger a police response. The main trouble is that officers can't do much.

Seattle Police say they "currently have no mechanism" to force a camper off a sidewalk between the hours of 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. There's also a lack of foot traffic overnight, so officers tend not to ticket campers for blocking sidewalk access.

"For us it's just about having a very clear path of action on what we do when larger encampments start popping up," Engh said.

Merchants say this isn't about pushing out the homeless. Most add that they support additional services to help people on the streets. However, business owners want some limits, and somewhere to turn when neighbors are less than neighborly.

"It's a problem for us," Mitsumasu Scotti said. "It's a problem for them as well."

The Downtown Seattle Association is now working with police, merchants and the homeless to find solutions.