CITY BUDGET: Mayor Burgess, department heads argue against restricting encampment removal authority

(WSB photo: March cleanup under the West Seattle Brige)

As the City Council’s budget review/change process approaches its crescendo, the biggest battles are over items related to homelessness – especially whether to restrict how and whether unauthorized encampments can be removed. An overnight camp-out outside City Hall downtown right now is urging city leaders to “stop the sweeps.” But Mayor Tim Burgess has sent the council a memo – embedded below (we requested and obtained it after seeing citywide outlets’ reports earlier tonight) – saying that would be dangerous.

Some key points in the memo (which you also can read here, in PDF) – first, he begins:

After consulting with Fire Chief Scoggins, Police Chief O’Toole, and Public Health Director Hayes, I want to warn the City Council that adoption of proposed budget proviso GS 240-1-A-1-2018 blocking unauthorized encampment removals will create an elevated public health and safety risk to the people of Seattle. Many of the estimated 400 unauthorized encampments inside the city presently pose health and safety risks to the residents of these encampments and adjacent neighbors. The city government cannot ignore or tolerate these risks.

Advocates say that the removals are inhumane. The mayor counters: “The removal practices being implemented by city workers are humane, well planned, and effective.” His document also contains memos from department heads that further argue the case for removals:

As of Oct. 18, 2017, the Customer Service Bureau has received 4,389 complaints related to unauthorized encampments this year. The current average of 462 complaints a month is on pace to nearly double the total amount of complaints from 2016 (2,719) and quadruple the amount of complaints (1,245) the City received in 2015.

It says the city is having more success moving people to better circumstances:

As of mid-October of this year, the City has removed 143 unauthorized encampments. Through the Navigation Team’s intensive one-on-one engagement, 1,484 individuals have been engaged, with 581 individuals living in encampments accepting referrals to safer living spaces, including people who were required to leave when an encampment was cleaned up, and those who took advantage of City outreach-only efforts.

This 2017 acceptance rate is significantly improved from 2016, when outreach workers made 4,548 contacts and only 213 people accepted offers to move to a safer location.

The department heads’ memo points out that allowing people to live in unsanitary conditions raises the risk of an epidemic like the one with which San Diego is currently grappling:

As recently advised by Public Health – Seattle & King County, an ongoing hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego highlights the sanitation and hygiene concerns. As of mid-October, San Diego reported 18 individuals dead, 386 hospitalized and at least 578 individuals infected. The conditions in San Diego’s unmanaged encampments encouraged the spread of this entirely preventable disease

The document goes into extra detail related to city parks, contending that “prohibiting the removal of unauthorized encampments would open City parks and green space to unauthorized camping.” Listing the potential risks of that, this section mentions the recent peat fire at Roxhill Park and for the first time reveals its cause:

(WSB photo from last month’s Roxhill Park peat fire)

Fire is another hazard for park environs linked to homeless encampments. Residents of homeless encampments often use wood stoves or camp fires for heat and cooking. If left unattended, these fires can burn out of control and burn down camp structures, destroy vegetation and wildlife habitat and endanger people. Additionally, on Oct. 12, 2017, a fire started at the peat bog at Roxhill Park; it was caused by people using sterno cans. An area of 30×40 feet, 7-feet deep, was dug up as the Fire Department sprayed hundreds of gallons of water over a three-hour period to put out the hotspot that reached 150 degrees. Parks staff had to remove several trees to clear a path for SFD.

Also mentioned, “Had it been worse, the 2017 fire at an encampment at the west end of the Spokane
Street viaduct could have resulted in a long-term closure of the West Seattle high bridge.” Back to Parks:

The impact of encampments on parks and SPR park maintenance staff has been significant, and encampments or encampment-related issues have been the primary complaint we receive from the public. SPR crews this year have hauled away tons of trash. Even so, garbage, needles and feces continue to pile up in our natural areas and greenbelts across the city.

Preventing SPR from removing unauthorized encampments from City parks would undermine both the authority of the Superintendent to fulfill his role as steward of public lands and his responsibility to make policy decisions for the park system

The document also says that state grant funding received for many parks might have to be refunded if parks are allowed to be used as encampments, in effect converting them to a “non-park use.” The list of such grant-funded projects includes West Seattle locations such as Don Armeni Boat Ramp, Emma Schmitz Memorial Overlook, Fauntleroy Park, Longfellow Creek, Puget Creek, Roxhill Park, E.C. Hughes, Ercolini Park, and the Alki Trail. Restricting removal, the memo says, could also mean “SPR would need to establish dedicated camping zones in a significant portion of City parks and greenspaces.”

The exact document to which the mayor refers at the start of his memo was presented last week – see it here – then amended before Councilmember Lisa Herbold presented her “initial balancing package” earlier this week as budget chair. The new version focuses on accountability rather than defunding. But nothing’s final for a few more weeks.

Next steps in the budget process, if councilmembers want changes in what was presented this week, they have to get them in by tomorrow afternoon. Changes will then be discussed next week. If you have feedback, is the address.

33 Replies to "CITY BUDGET: Mayor Burgess, department heads argue against restricting encampment removal authority"

  • dan November 1, 2017 (9:27 pm)

    What a well reasoned and well written letter.  If I know it couldn’t be true, I would think that Seattle has someone in a leadership position trying to lead.  Too bad it is only for a few more weeks…

    • Curtis November 1, 2017 (10:47 pm)

      So true!  One sane person in the madness.

  • The King November 1, 2017 (9:41 pm)

    When the encampments are evacuated, the machinery moves in to do the dirt work, essentially rototilling needles and other toxins back into the earth. Moves on to the next sight. Rinse, wash, repeat.

    • WSB November 1, 2017 (10:23 pm)

      I believe at least at some sites they’ve removed some of the soil too.

      • The King November 3, 2017 (5:38 am)

        The camp on Dearborn had some dirt removed that I know of, a local news channel has reported there are 400 such camps now. Yikes 

  • bobbloef November 1, 2017 (9:43 pm)

    Remove all the camps.  Keep cleaning the up.  If you enable these people  more will come from around the country.  This is a disaster. 

  • dsa November 1, 2017 (11:50 pm)

    Yeah Burgess, you can stay on as mayor.

  • alkistu November 2, 2017 (3:45 am)

    It is encouraging that the removal and placement numbers are going up but an assesment before camp removal to determine and prepare the needed new occupancy and acceptance would keep the camps from roving to new locations creating a new and reoccuring camp removal and expense.  Respecting what little possesion these people have when camp sweeps also remove their possesions is a concern. Yes they are given advance notice of the forthcoming sweep but how and where do they store these possesions. A reclaim effort or temporary storage would encourage more acceptance of camp removals as losing possesions is a big concern for the homeless when it comes to relocating.  

  • mark47n November 2, 2017 (4:56 am)

    So, the city council is considering blocking removal of already illegal encampments? Then what? 3000T of trash is an incredible amount and 400 encampments is also incredible. That the city council would choose to allow these hazards to stand is pretty incredible and reeks of abdication of responsibility.

    I’ve been a lot of places and have never seen a wealthy nation or city permit what amounts to miniature favela’s to thrive in them. The question repeatedly comes up of what is the city’s responsibility to these people? Are we responsible for housing them? If we say yes, we are responsible, then where? What services are we obligated to provide? If we are to take on these responsibilities who pays for it, because it’s not free, it will require manpower, land, a great deal of money and those that would receive those services would have to comply with the terms of those services.  Keep in mind that these questions are a matter of law (rights are enumerated by laws) and not morals…because this is a city. As a city, we and our ridiculous governing bodies are bound by those laws, if you want morals hit up an NGO that supports your point of view. 

    I, for one, am tired of the mounds, stunning and unbelievable mounds of garbage, buckets full of feces, trashed porta-potties and the like. I’ve watched one occupant menace another with a knife, heard sounds of an extremely questionable nature from one tent or another and other troubling sounds emanate from within some of these encampments. I read about bicycle thefts and see piles of bicycles, and not all of them crappy, in small encampments.

    We live in a region of shocking wealth. Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft and other corporations make their home here. The number of staggeringly wealthy people is balance by staggering poverty. I can think of a few other cities like this. one of them is Brazil. Incredible wealth and stunning poverty. We may not be on the same scale as brazil but we are but a wee little model of it. 

    I don’t have the solution and don’t bother crying to me that I need to have a solution at the forefront of my mind before I can piss and moan about this issue because I say bollocks to that. The current state is wretched and deplorable and something needs to change. In the meantime the sweeps need to continue.

  • Brewmeister November 2, 2017 (7:21 am)

    I don’t always agree with Burgess on some issues but he’s right on the mark here.   It’s about time a voice of reason is coming from a Seattle Mayor.   

    Can we write him in on the ballot for Mayor?  He would be sooooo much better than the two clowns we have running now. 

  • Concerned November 2, 2017 (7:29 am)

    Seattle’s 10 year plan =failure

    Seattle’s $160,000 a year “homeless czar” =failure

    Seattle throwing 10’s of millions of dollars at the homeless issue =failure

    Seattle’s “solution” of letting homeless camp in parks and in sidewalks =failure

    Seattle’s “solution” of letting cars and RV’s park indefinitely =failure

    Now they want to tax businesses for another 24 million to do what exactly? WTF is the city going to do with this money to build a solution that they couldn’t before? What a joke. The only people really benifitting from all this are these career “homeless advocates” 

  • WS November 2, 2017 (7:34 am)

    Mark47n – Ditto well said

  • Jissy November 2, 2017 (7:51 am)

    Mark47n, Truth, Brother…. Truth.

    Just moved out of West Seattle after 45 years…. agonizing decision.  Part of what played into the decision though was the immense lack of leadership or anyone with balls in Seattle government that panders to the minority at the peril of  the majority — you know, those productive members of society that pay all the taxes.  Yeah, that…. it’s sickening and was no longer tolerable in our household.  

    • Mr J November 2, 2017 (12:26 pm)

      Whose the minority? BYE.

  • Rusty November 2, 2017 (8:12 am)

    So let’s get this correct – cleaning up unsafe, illegal, trash-and-feces-infested ‘camps’ while offering services is actually, finally, working to get more people to services and off the street (along with the navigation team) while dealing with public safety hazards. There are many council members, and protesters, who think this is just awful because it inconveniences the homeless folks who were living in filth, and want them to be able to camp anywhere (even our parks) no matter what damage to the environment, themselves, and the neighborhood ensues. We’ve had murders, rapes, and human slavery at various ‘camps’ in addition to amazing amounts of trash. 

    How is it possible that some ‘advocates’ think it’s more compassionate to let people live outdoors in filth again?

  • PangolinPie November 2, 2017 (9:10 am)

    Mark47N, totally agree. I’m so discouraged by the way things are going. 

    • Colleen November 2, 2017 (12:22 pm)

      I agree. Discouraged and disgusted with the gross incompetence.

      Take heart, use your vote and empty out the city council to get a fresh start with intelligent people of integrity. 

  • anonyme November 2, 2017 (9:23 am)

    The choice is simple: accept services and comply with rules or accept consequences.  According to the above figures, just over a third accept services.  The other two thirds need to be swept, arrested, and discouraged in any way possible from further destroying our city.  We cannot let drug addicts determine how the rest of us must live.

    I fully agree with Mark47, as well as Brewmeister.  I’d love to see Burgess on the ballot instead of what we have.  Moon is in outer space and I can’t figure out Durkan, but Burgess is showing an admirable amount of balance.

  • PangolinPie November 2, 2017 (9:38 am)

    I posted this on the Forum discussion but I’d like to repeat it here:

    Here’s another story you should read.

    This is from someone who deals with encampments all the time. 

    An excerpt:
    “Someone here with two years of camps all around my workplace. I don’t believe this can be boiled down to pros and cons, but I can relate my experience. When the camps are running in the neighborhood, we have an immediate increase in visible trash all over the neighborhood. Not just in the camps themselves, but throughout the entire area. Some places are literally just dumping grounds; other places people camp for a week or so, trash the area, and leave the mess. There is an immediate uptick in graffiti, vandalism, and smash-n-grabs. Broken glass on the streets from car prowls. Bike theft. Needles on the ground. Human waste everywhere – sidewalks, parking strips, you name it….As I have a birds-eye view into one of the larger camps under 5, I can see what is going on there, day in and day out. What I see up there are white, mostly male, mostly young, people with severe drug addictions, preying on one another, vandalizing everything in site, shooting up, smoking meth, and building shanties.”

    And people wonder why I want to do something about newly-present RVs in my neighborhood, and why I won’t offer some kind of olive branch welcoming them to the area. Man, I love Seattle, but people here sometimes have a certain distance from reality.

    • Concerned November 2, 2017 (12:32 pm)

      Wow, I think everyone should read that Reddit post. I see this all the time on downtown Sodo and Airport Way and it’s dangerous and disgusting.

      People should talk with police officers, as I have, who have dealt with these encampments for years. They’re unsanitary, disgusting, and dangerous.

      I also don’t want any part of offering an olive branch to RVs setting up shop in my neighborhood. If I was ok with that, I wouldn’t have busted my butt working 2 jobs, and saving up to buy a house in a neighborhood that didn’t have this kind of thing going on in it when I bought the house

  • Born on Alki 59 November 2, 2017 (9:41 am)

    Totally agree with Mark47. 

    Living in filth and garbage should not be an option for anyone. If the sweeps direct some to desperately needed services I’d say they are a success.

    Taxing big businesses out of Seattle to promote a work free drug place is Sawants stance. Pathetic. 

    The mayor and councils top priority, by oath, is protecting public safety.

    Id say the sweeps are a step in the right direction. A City Conservation Corps  would be money better spent. Something where you live in a sanctioned camp, drug and alcohol free, work and learn a trade while getting services you need in exchange for three hots and a cot.  Just my $.02

  • M November 2, 2017 (9:43 am)

    I so wished Burgess would have run for Mayor. He is the voice of reason and true leadership.

  • Mr J November 2, 2017 (12:41 pm)

    Sweeping this away won’t solve anything, I’m ashamed at the lack of empathy so many commenters on here have. This is a huge problem with no easy nor cheap answers. As long as YOU feel better and don’t have to SEE it… I guess that’s what’s really important?

    • Kim November 2, 2017 (1:12 pm)

      Mr J, 

      The navigation team is at least attempting to solve the problem, and are at a current success rate of ~40%.  The 40% of people who accept help at least have a shot of turning their life around. Doing nothing, and allowing these camps to continue and grow solves exactly 0% of the problem.  WHY do you think it’s better to do nothing? It’s not just about “not having to see it”…it’s about creating a community that is better for everyone.   

    • Rusty November 2, 2017 (1:14 pm)

      Mr. J – Tell me, do you actually think that allowing our fellow human beings to live in filth, be preyed upon by criminal elements and drug addicts who trash our beautiful environment is ’empathy’? Because that’s what is going on. We’ve had fires, rapes, murders, and the trafficking of underage girl(s) in these unauthorized ‘camps’ – and now they want to allow them in parks as well. The sweeps are intended to stop this – perhaps temporarily, but also, as reported, they are getting MORE people connected with services. Do you really think those people would accept if we just ‘left them alone’ or sent people out to just offer services? Seems like the > 90% that refuse services when that’s done would belie that belief. Does it make you feel better when you see the trash, graffiti, stolen property strewn all over that you support letting people do whatever they want wherever they want to? Does it make you feel better when there’s a rape/murder/fire that you wanted to prevent anyone from cleaning up that site or enforce the law?

      I don’t think it does – I wouldn’t put that on you. I think you probably want to help – just like most of us who want to help our fellow citizens. We can disagree about the best solutions, but you have gone out of your way to cast anyone who supports the sweeps as uncaring elitists who just don’t want to ‘see’ the homeless. That’s wildly disingenuous and gets around having to defend your position. The sweeps happen when the situation at/around an unauthorized encampment becomes a public safety issue – not just for the taxpaying public, but also for those staying there.

  • Michael Waldo November 2, 2017 (1:40 pm)

    “the lack of empathy so many commenters on here have”. Do you think it is compassionate to allow people to leave in squalor under a bridge, surrounded by needles, crap, urine, rats, drug addicts? Folks from around the country call us “Feeattle”.  Where do you think they get the tents and bikes? They steal them! Those run down RV’s? Folks sit in them all day shooting up and throw the needles out the door. The consultant the city hired to audit the 50 Million dollars(!) a year sent to various homeless non-profits said they do not have to show any results to the city.  Where is this money going? 50 mil – you could most likely pay the rent for every homeless person with that much money. The fact is we spend more per capita  then any other major city on homelessness with the worse outcomes. The Union gospel Mission sends out a rescue van every night to try and bring folks inside. “No, we don’t what to come inside. We like our freedom.”  Ask them. They have said in interviews they have empty beds every night. We are not giving the homeless the dignity they deserve by letting them live in filth.

  • Laura November 2, 2017 (9:12 pm)

    Okay West Seattle peeps. You’re clearly fed up with the ‘let them camp wherever and whenever they want’ attitude that some of the city council members have. Voice your opinion with your ballot and when she’s up for re-election remember that your own Lisa Herbold is one of the activist council members that supports crazy Kshama Sawant who is willing to turn Seattle into a giant cesspool.

    • WSB November 2, 2017 (9:38 pm)

      Actually, if it wasn’t clear enough above, Herbold amended Sawant’s proposal in a big way.

    • Rusty November 2, 2017 (11:52 pm)

      In all fairness, I think Councilmember Herbold knows people are unhappy with our failure to get people off the streets as well as the unsanitary, unsafe encampments. I’m not 100% sure on her exact position, but her changes to the ill-conceived and dangerously lawless proposal (sponsored by Sawant, Harris-Talley and O’Brien, call them) are better than nothing. 

      Here’s a much closer look into it – not sure what the future has in store, but I would say Herbold is (hopefully) light years ahead of those three:

  • mark47n November 3, 2017 (3:01 am)

    Compassion and empathy are words that are often slung around like cudgels in order to evoke a reaction and it’s a rhetorical trick I really don’t like and, as many say, I tend to fall short on empathy.

    There is this notion that we owe a living and housing to everyone but it’s just not true. We have bent or broken laws to allow the situation to get to where it is now. RVs that park and never move, the encampments and all that goes on in them, and yet there are those that say that we don’t empathize. 

    Empathy. What does that mean, exactly? Who gets to define what empathy looks like? Is it the commentators here who decry those who are fed up and want the laws on the books enforced? Probably, as they are the ones that wring their hands and prate on about “human rights”. 

    To those who would decry my stance, my lack of tolerance, for the status quo I say this: there is a great solution, you host these “campers”. Have them come and live with you. You feed them. Before you point a finger at me perhaps you should look to yourself and ask what you are doing to improve the situation. Have a tent city erected in your yard. 

    No? Is that, perhaps, a little close? A little too real? At least I make no bones about my stance; I don’t want these encampments in my backyard. I have no problem with the concept of NIMBYism, often it’s about self-protection. I don’t want a prison or a refinery as my neighbor. I don’t want to live next to a pot shop. A hospital across the street is not my idea of a good time. 

    By the modern day definition I have no empathy. No compassion. I lack the milk of human kindness. I’m fine with that but at least I’m willing to say it, to own it. I don’t sling around these terms as weapons to bludgeon those who differ with me, My actions are consistent with my stated position unlike so many of the empathetic who leave these poor benighted souls out in the cold and wet but will give me the tongue lashing.

  • Mark November 3, 2017 (12:02 pm)

    Enough already.  The City taxpayers have paid millions on top of millions of dollars and the issue keeps getting worse.  

    It is time too change strategy to expect the recipients of help to accept to live within the rules of society.  More money IS NOT the answer.  HIGHER EXPECTATIONS is

  • Bradley November 3, 2017 (6:25 pm)

    People are dying in Southern California from hepatitis A due to unrestricted homeless camps. Their illegal campers have spread the disease through their scattered feces. Stop the madness, already! All public, unauthorized camping laws need to be enforced. This is a health emergency. Once hepatitis A gets a foot-hold in an area, it spreads like wildfire. Hep A used to be very rare in this country. Shame on Carrie Moon, Clowncilman O’Brien, Clowncilwoman Sawant, and anyone else who advocates to put our entire community in danger.

  • Huck November 5, 2017 (5:53 am)

    Vote, vote, vote and get rid of these knuckleheads on the city council!!

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