City Council encampment debate prompts anger, no firm solution

The Seattle City Council today took up two pieces of legislation which could change how the city handles, and enforces homeless encampments.

SEATTLE -- Politics can sometimes be theater. On Friday, the Seattle City Council was center stage.

For several hours, the Council's committee for Human Services and Public Health debated two new amended proposals to manage homeless encampments, but spent most of the time trying to manage the crowd.

The debate over where to allow encampments and how long to let them sit before removal has bubbled for weeks.  First, the ACLU crafted legislation that called for unauthorized encampments to be given a thirty day notice, instead of the current 72-hour span. A rewrite included vague language, that according to the Mayor's office and members of Council, opened the doors for tents to set up in public parks and on sidewalks.

Last week, maps were circulated by Seattle Parks and SDOT showing 5,200 acres of parks and 167 miles of sidewalk would be eligible for camping. It prompted public outcry from neighborhood groups and even an online petition to recall councilmember Mike O'Brien who had sponsored the original legislation.

"I need to understand who released this and why, and who decided to play politics with this," said O'Brien at the committee meeting on Friday, as he waved the maps in front of the Mayor's staff.

"Saying we were playing politics, I don't think is a fair characterization," responded Ian Warner, of the Mayor's staff, in front of what seemed like a very vocal crowd of homeowners worried about camping in parks.

Shelby Lemmel, who lives in Magnolia told the council, "Don't tell me I don't understand that map - when I look at it - I invite you to come to my community - where the greenbelt you think, you're protected now is right next to my school, ball field and pre-school."

Councilmembers O'Brien and Kshama Sawant, who supported the original ACLU legislation, were routinely shouted down during the course of the meeting.

Julie Debone, of Magnolia, elicited another response. She testified with her two children in tow, "Many of the unsheltered families - are people with young children and some of children's classmates are living in encampments," she said, choking back tears. "My heart burns with our shame when I think we have failed them and it angers me when I hear parents from our school talking about organizing a protest."

Two political candidates were also in attendance, including Gubernatorial Candidate Bill Bryant and Mark Miloscia, who is running for State Auditor. Miloscia told KING 5 he'd handle the issue in Olympia because "when Seattle sneezes, the rest of the state gets a cold," and that the state needs to increase funding for mental health and substance abuse.

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw's legislation calls for camps to be limited and not in parks, sidewalks, or other public areas, and a 72-hour notice for removal with certain conditions. O'Brien's version was called "less restrictive" by a central staffer and still has a 30-day clause.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is pitching opening four more licensed encampments to handle the need to get people off the street.

A council decision on the legislation is not likely until December, after the budget cycle concludes.

Copyright 2016 KING


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