Columbia Legal Services Weighs in on City of Seattle’s Proposed Rules Governing Homeless Encampment Removals

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The proposed rules relating to encampment removals in Seattle are a positive step toward establishing a balanced and more effective response to unsheltered homelessness, but the breadth of certain definitions and the exclusion of certain individuals from services are cause for concern. Under existing definitions of “obstruction,” “immediate hazard,” and “emphasis area,” virtually any part of Seattle can be made entirely off limits and people experiencing homelessness can be removed without any notice or protections.
This feedback is included in public comments submitted to the City of Seattle’s Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) yesterday by Columbia Legal Services (CLS) and the Seattle Community Law Center (SCLC). These comments were submitted in response to the proposed FAS Removal Rule and proposed changes to Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules (MDAR) related to removing unauthorized homeless encampments from City property.

“Advocates appreciate steps the city is taking to tackle the complicated challenges of homelessness in Seattle,” said CLS attorney Yurij Rudensky. “However, loose definitions, which allow for arbitrary enforcement and will leave people experiencing homelessness guessing where they can and cannot be, undermine the commendable spirit of the rules. These issues could result in the continued unproductive practice of city officials chasing unsheltered individuals from one site to the next.”

Examples of definitions that CLS determines to be overbroad include “emphasis area,” “immediate hazard,” and “obstruction,” which could make all parts of Seattle strictly off limits and detrimentally impact proper notification and provision of services.

Also, as the CLS comments point out, the City’s requirement that a shelter space is a sufficient offer for people being evicted leaves unaddressed the fundamental reason people are living outside—the lack of accessible housing. It is very difficult for people to give up a place where they can live with family or community for a mat on the floor during nighttime hours only. Because of shelter hours, the same number of individuals will continue to live on the streets many hours a day, a scenario that does not work for the housed or the houseless.

“The bottom line is that we need to invest in additional housing that offers realistic, permanent alternatives to sleeping outside,” said CLS Directing Attorney Ann LoGerfo. “If these rules simply result in moving people experiencing homelessness around the City, then we’re back to 2015, when Mayor Murray declared homelessness a civil state of emergency and sweeps ramped up, to no real effect.”

Changes in the rules also grant the FAS Director with authority to request police action to exclude individuals from any City-owned or City-controlled property during a sweep for such vague reasons as “obstruct[ing] the expeditious progress of the removal.”  In other words, anyone who does not follow removal procedures or receives a notice of exclusion could be subject to criminal trespass charges.

“Highlighting, and making explicit, the authority of City personnel to hand out misdemeanor charges criminalizes homelessness and works against the City’s ultimate goal of reducing barriers and creating a pathway home,” said Alex Doolittle, Executive Director of the Seattle Community Law Center.