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:
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, email@example.com is the address.