Standing Up for Shelter For Everyone

In August 2016, in partnership with the ACLU of Washington, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH), the Public Defender Association, and Seattle Community Law Center, Columbia Legal Services published an open letter to the Seattle City Council and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray calling for their commitment to a safe and sustainable alternative to the ongoing sweeps of unsheltered individuals and families in Seattle. In early September, the Seattle City Council introduced the Sustainable Response to Unsheltered Residents ordinance - drafted by CLS and the ACLU of WA with input from those same advocacy organizations, Councilmembers, and their staff - which values the city’s responsibility to emergencies and hazards while insisting that the solution to homelessness does not involve making life more difficult for those who have no other options. Instead of continuing to ask the question “where are they supposed to go?” we have partnered with experts in the region to find an answer. With the shared goal of reducing homelessness, we intend to work with Councilmembers, homeless and neighborhood advocates, and the general public to discuss and improve upon the ordinance in the hopes of creating a sustainable response to unsheltered residents.

Though Seattle was the nation’s third fastest-growing city in 2015, it is also becoming increasingly unaffordable. The 2016 One Night Count revealed that there are more than 4500 unsheltered men, women, and children in King County on any given night. In response to this growing crisis, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency.  But, along with increased funding for homeless services and housing, the city has also stepped up eviction sweeps of homeless encampments, sometimes destroying essential personal property in the process.

In February 2016, Yurij Rudensky, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, joined the Seattle Channel's City Inside/Out program with representatives from the City of Seattle, Seattle City Council, and neighborhood groups to discuss these sweeps and debate the issues surrounding the City's actions regarding the homelessness crisis (video below).

Columbia Legal Services has been working with advocates from the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (the Coalition), the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-WA), Seattle University’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project (HRAP), and the Racial Disparity Project as well as people experiencing homelessness to oppose the sweeps until there is enough adequate shelter.

These sweeps are occurring at a time when, as Mayor Murray has said, “[w]e are facing our worst housing affordability crisis in decades.” Making matters worse, state psychiatric hospitals are facing lawsuits because of the chronic lack of mental health beds, chemical dependency treatment options do not nearly meet the needed demand, and there is much less emergency shelter capacity than the number of people who need it.

Though the city and mayor have been working to increase available shelter, there is not yet enough space for everyone. Instead, the city’s practices appear to include referring people from encampments to shelters that are already at capacity, effectively displacing people who are already in shelter. Other times, there is no way for people to get to the shelters with their belongings.

“We applaud efforts by Mayor Murray to call attention and devote resources to the complicated challenges of homelessness in Seattle,” said Yurij Rudensky. “But with the cost of living in Seattle soaring and people who are experiencing homelessness already facing indignities and perils, destroying their property and failing to provide adequate shelter does not increase safety. Nor does displacing those who are currently using shelter spaces.”

“You have a lot of time and a lot of energy spent on telling people to leave where they are and go somewhere else without any identification of where to go,” CLS Directing Attorney Ann LoGerfo told The Tyee. “Often people just return after the sweep, to the original location, and the sweeps themselves are very disruptive to the people living outside in terrible conditions and also very expensive for the government as well.”

Ann and Yurij are working closely with allies and elected officials to advocate for the needs of the homeless and seeking to cooperate with City officials to work towards a temporary and longer-term solution for Seattle’s homeless population, as well as address systemic problems with criminalizing homeless activities across the State. They continue to document homeless sweeps and collect stories of people impacted by them to raise awareness. CLS advocates are conducting public education sessions across the city, ranging from youth centers to law schools.

Here are some other milestones in our advocacy related to homeless encampment sweeps:

  • Late last year, the Coalition and the ACLU-WA joined us in sending a letter to Mayor Ed Murray listing several concerns and requesting a meeting to discuss the sweeps going forward.
  • On December 30, 2015, we filed an amicus brief to the Washington State Supreme Court in the case of City of Lakewood v. Willis in support of Robert Willis. Like the people who are losing their temporary shelters in homeless sweeps, Mr. Willis faced punishment because he was engaging in a life sustaining activity—in this case panhandling—in public. We argue, and believe, that the government cannot and should not punish people for their visible poverty, be it sleeping in public when there is nowhere else to go or panhandling.
  • On January 15, 2016, we sent a letter to the Seattle Office of Civil Rights requesting that they investigate the city’s policies towards the sweeps, as current procedures are likely to perpetuate systematic racism and have a disproportionate impact on veterans, people with disabilities, and others.
  • On February 16, 2016, advocates with Columbia Legal Services and the ACLU of WA sent a joint letter to Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw in response to eight recommendations she proposed in a blog post to help move the City forward in its State of Emergency response. In the letter, advocates thank Councilmember Bagshaw for the opportunity to engage with her and the Council, including at a February 5 Human Services and Public Health Committee discussion, and respond to each of her proposals.

CLS in the News: