Seattle city council considers plan that some say would "legalize" homeless camping

The Seattle City Council debated a plan at their meeting Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, that some say would "legalize" homeless camping around the city. (KOMO Photo)

SEATTLE - Several Seattle City Councilmembers appear to be in favor of controversial law that critics say would "legalize" homeless camping on city property. But, supportive council members are not as quick to use that word.

The law, proposed by Councilwoman Sally Bagshaw, basically acknowledges that the city lacks the appropriate housing to move the city's homeless population off the streets. She said there's a short term "gap" that needs to be filled while the mayor's long term plan to move the homeless into immediate housing takes shape.

"The gap is now, when we see people who have no place to go and there are no alternatives," Bagshaw told a packed audience in the council chambers on Thursday. She chairs the Human Services and Public Health subcommittee that is currently debating the proposed homeless camping law.

"This would be the first time in the city's history that we would pass a law allowing camping on city property," said Councilmember Tim Burgess. "We have to be careful about this."

The law would allow camping on areas the city would deem "suitable" for camping.

"Suitable means not in maintained park, not on the side walk, not in a place where kids are playing," said Bagshaw after the meeting.

Councilmembers acknowledged what is deemed suitable to one person, may not be suitable for another. There was even a debate if a tent could be suitable shelter.

"School property, absolutely not," said Bagshaw. "People talk about transit stations, plazas, Pike Place Market and Seattle Center, University of Washington, these are places, we do not want those to be places to camp."

But a majority of the public that spoke at the council meeting were critical of the proposed law.

"People are worried that passing this legislation is going to create these camps," said a business owner from Ballard. "They are here, they're everywhere. All it's going to do is legalize them."

Others supported the law as a compassionate approach to crisis which would allow the homeless to stay put for a while without the fear to being caught in an unexpected sweep.

"Sweep trash, not people," one supporter told the committee.

The proposal would also put the city on the hook for cleaning up the trash at camps that had five or more residents.

Bagshaw would rather see an expansion of management encampments where there are at least four. The camps have shown some success with issues like trash and theft.

She also did not discount the idea of making the infamous "Jungle" homeless encampment under I-5 as a managed encampment with services like dumpsters and porta-potties.

"I'm not saying it’s the best place," said Bagshaw. "But it may be better than letting them run around in neighborhoods where they are camping and causing problems neighbors are concerned about."

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