Proposed Ordinance Provides Sustainable Response to Unsheltered Residents in Seattle

News Release: 
Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Community Organizations and Legal Advocates Support Housing-First Approach to Homelessness in Seattle 

Community organizations and legal advocates are calling on the Seattle City Council and Mayor Ed Murray to pass an ordinance introduced by Councilmember Mike O’Brien aimed at making the City more responsive to both neighborhood concerns and the needs of people experiencing homelessness. The groups urged the City Council to vote today to move the proposal forward in the legislative process.

Columbia Legal Services, the ACLU of Washington, the Public Defender Association, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, the Seattle Community Law Center, and Real Change worked closely with many stakeholders, including councilmembers, to draft the Unsheltered Residents Ordinance.

The proposed ordinance provides a framework for how the City engages in campsite removals or vehicle impoundments that meets legitimate community concerns regarding health and safety while protecting the human dignity and civil rights of homeless people. This ordinance will replace current City guidelines for campsite removals, which have suffered from inconsistent application, inadequate provisions for notification, outreach, and storage of personal items, and insufficient transparency. The groups advocating for the measure have engaged in substantive discussions with a range of community, neighborhood, business, and other concerned groups; the groups have tailored the ordinance to address concerns that have been raised and strengthened provisions to that protect individual and community health and safety.

“Everyone needs a place to sleep and, right now, people living unsheltered in Seattle are needlessly losing their property and are being forcibly removed from their dwellings simply for being poor,” said Alison Eisinger, Executive Director at Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “This ordinance addresses this reality and clearly outlines appropriate responses for different scenarios, recognizing that the only lasting solution is a path to housing. This is the type of compassionate and effective response that can serve as a model for other communities facing similar challenges.”

The draft ordinance establishes a housing-first approach, which has proven successful elsewhere, while protecting the City’s right to respond immediately to hazardous conditions. The proposal requires an outreach period of no less than 30 days in non-emergency situations, provides for assessment of each affected individual, and stipulates that a housing alternative must be available to homeless persons before removal or impoundment occurs. The ordinance also outlines a procedure for notification and retrieval of property that protects the civil rights of affected people. In emergency situations, the ordinance provides a framework for timely mitigation of hazardous conditions.

“We don’t need to keep examining and discussing the problem. What we need is a clearly articulated solution to help people get off the street and into sustainable housing, rather than shuffle people between outside locations,” said Yurij Rudensky, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services. “Thousands of people in Seattle don’t have access to the basics that every human being needs, including basic garbage and sanitation services. Everyone suffers as a result. With this ordinance as a first step, our City can develop a smart, effective approach to the complicated challenges of homelessness in Seattle.”

“If we continue to do nothing to help unsheltered residents, their health and safety will be further comprised. This ordinance is community-driven and will ensure that the City’s finite resources are used effectively. It will reduce the number of encampments whereas the City’s current policy has expanded them,” said Elisabeth Smith, ACLU of Washington Legislative Director.

The draft ordinance establishes an advisory committee that will review information and advise Mayor Murray, the Seattle City Council, and other relevant City departments regarding its successful implementation of this ordinance.