Murray expands shelter for homeless people, proposes encampment ordinance

Today, Mayor Murray announced several actions to respond to the growing number of homeless people forced to sleep on the streets of Seattle, including an expansion of emergency shelter and the establishment of up to three permitted tent encampments on City or private lands in Seattle.

“These folks are our neighbors, each with his or her own unfortunate path to homelessness,” said Murray. “The dramatic erosion of state and federal investments to respond to their challenges have created a full-blown crisis. With current shelters at capacity, we must fund additional beds immediately.”

Beginning Jan. 15, the city will double the size of the emergency shelter at the King County Administration Building. The facility currently serves as a seasonal shelter that hosts 50 beds during the coldest winter months. Murray said that by the end of January, the city will also fund another 15 shelter beds at a Capitol Hill facility specifically for youth living on the streets.

The city currently funds 1,700 shelter beds – each serving an average of 6 people a year. The Seattle City Council has already set aside funding that will be used to pay for the additional shelter capacity announced today. The cost for the additional beds is $182,000.

The city continues to look at options to establish additional shelter space in surplus city buildings, but all sites would require improvements before they could serve in that capacity.

This week, the mayor is also transmitting a draft ordinance to the City Council that allows for up to three permitted encampments in Seattle at any one time, each serving up to 100 people. These encampments could be located on vacant parcels in non-residential areas. Sites on both private and City lands would be eligible for permits, but the mayor’s proposal excludes City parks.

“Permitted encampments are not, in my view, a long-term strategy to end homelessness, but organized encampments have less impact on our neighborhoods and provide a safer environment than what we see on our streets today,” said Murray.

Under the mayor’s proposal, the new permitted encampments must be located within a half-mile of a transit stop and more than one mile from each other. Each site would be required to move every 12 months. Unlike the existing encampment ordinance, sponsorship by a religious organization would not be required.

These new permitted sites would be required to provide residents access to city social services developed to help people manage their challenges and transition from homelessness to more permanent housing.

The social service agencies that operate these new encampments would also participate in the same data collection tools as the City’s current homeless shelters. The client information remains private, but helps the city continue to improve service delivery.

“I’m pleased that the Mayor will be reintroducing a new version of the bill I proposed last year to allow for longer term temporary encampments,” said Councilmember Nick Licata. “This is not the solution to homelessness, but we simply can’t wait to solve homelessness. The City has a responsibility today to the 2,300 people sleeping outside on any given night in Seattle, so that they can at least stay together and stay safe.”

“This announcement today is an important step in addressing the most immediate challenges that homeless people face in our city–a safe place to be at night,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien. “I think the Mayor’s encampment proposal is a smart approach that provides the stability of a place to be, while also offering services to support people trying to get back into housing.”

“Everyone deserves a safe place to sleep,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw. “This legislation is an important first step to help people transition to stable housing, the compassionate solution. I applaud the Task Force’s work and look forward to implementing this recommendation. Seattle needs places for people to stay and I am glad to see this legislation moving forward with urgency. This conversation is by no means over, but this is a great start to ensuring our city is safe for all.”

Under the existing ordinance governing encampments, religious institutions are permitted to host tent encampments. The mayor’s proposal would require community outreach prior to applying for a permit, as well as the formation of a Community Advisory Committee in the neighborhood of the encampment. The Seattle Department of Human Services will craft a toolkit that these organizations can use to develop a new shelter or encampment site.

The mayor’s proposals to support permitted encampments can also be funded from existing budgets at the cost of $85,000, which includes support for operations, including electricity and sanitation.

“It will take our whole community to end homelessness, and the diversity of the task force was a demonstration of our community’s vast compassion and commitment to reach this goal,” said Mark Putnam, Director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County. “The Mayor’s recommendations recognize that shelters and encampments are stabilizing for people experiencing the crisis of homelessness, and also that they are only the first step in the process of finding a long-term home.”

Seattle Human Services Interim Director John Okamoto will issue a report in March that evaluates the City’s spending on homelessness services and interventions—currently $37 million a year—with recommendations on better aligning the city’s efforts with national best practices.

You can read the Mayor’s full remarks here.