City officials clear out encampments in the CID under the I-5 on July 18, 2016. • Photo by Anakin Fung
City officials clear out encampments in the CID under the I-5 on July 18, 2016. • Photo by Anakin Fung

Ever since the Seattle City Council proposed an ordinance that would allow more leniency toward shutting down homeless encampments in the city, it’s been met with concern from Chinatown International District community members. The future of the ordinance remains uncertain, and discussion from the Council has most likely been shelved until late November or early December. For the CID community, which has worried about the impacts of homeless residents on public safety and health in the neighborhood, the concerns remain.

The ordinance began life early in September, based on policy ideas from the ACLU and other homeless advocacy organizations.

The proposal would change the city’s priority level when it comes to sweeping homeless encampments—that is, forcing homeless people to move from the area they’re sleeping. These sweeps would no longer be prioritized unless the encampments were located somewhere dangerous, or a public place that’s particularly unsuitable. What counts as “unsuitable” isn’t clear, partly because the proposal has since been split into three different versions with differing interpretations of this.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s version of the proposal, which closely resembled the ACLU’s, also required the city to provide 30-day’s notice to homeless residents if it chooses to evict them from encampments, and to offer them another place to stay, whether this be housing or another authorized encampment.

A version of this ordinance was originally supported by a majority of City Council members: Lisa Herbold, O’Brien, Kshama Sawant, Rob Johnson, and Lorena Gonzales. Meanwhile, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw proposed her own version.

The ACLU and other homeless advocates expressed their support for the ordinance. “The ordinance addresses the reality that Seattle does not have enough shelter to house homeless people,” wrote Doug Honig, spokesperson for the Washington ACLU, in an email. “People will continue to sleep outdoors until the lack of housing is resolved. The City’s current approach has been a failure that chases people from encampment to encampment. We need efforts that provide actual answers toward solving these very real, very human problems.”

The ordinance was also supported by the U.S. Department of Justice, which in a statement warned against policies that criminalize homelessness.

However, the ordinance was strongly opposed by Councilmember Tim Burgess and Mayor Ed Murray. Even Republican candidate for governor Bill Bryant waded into the city-focused debate and proposed his own policy on encampments—a “zero tolerance” one.

Ever since the ordinance was proposed, CID community members have voiced their concerns, including testifying at Council meetings.

Jessa Timmer, Executive Director of the Chinatown International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA) heard from many CID residents at community meetings that she and Sue May Eng of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association held.

“Many residents and business owners in the CID are not supportive of the ordinance in general,” Timmer wrote in an email. “It is seen as a distraction to the real issue they would like to see fixed—sheltering and housing the homeless. The neighborhood is very compassionate to the homeless situation and feel there is not enough being done to get them into the services they need. Putting unnecessary restrictions on the City to clear illegal camps is seen as a costly band-aid that does nothing to alleviate the concerns of housing.”

Dorothy Wong, Executive Director of the Chinese Information and Service Center, echoed the concerns of CID residents and Councilmember Burgess that the ordinance would cause problems for public health and safety.

“The prolonged presence of the homeless encampment, and the associated activities and individuals that it has attracted, have created severe health and safety problems that are threatening the viability of this neighborhood,” Wong wrote in an email. Areas of concern for the community include trash and human waste, crime, violence, and drug dealing she attributes to the homeless encampments, Wong said.

“I have heard that the elderly living in the CID are afraid to go out nowadays. Businesses have indicated that people are not coming to the area and their incomes are dropping.”

Until budget discussions conclude in late November, the differing proposals on the encampment ordinance likely won’t be discussed further or voted on by the Council. Until then, Timmer said she hopes the City Council listens to C-ID community members’ concerns on this issue.

According to Wong, community members have not yet discussed what they will do as a group. Some community members will be working on writing a letter outlining more long term solutions to homelessness in the neighborhood.

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