City fine-tuning policies over homeless encampments

Go to any greenbelt in Seattle and you're likely to run across sometimes-elaborate encampments of homeless people. And while the city has cleared out the encampments on a regular basis the last 15 years, it seems that new tents and shelters sometimes spring up in the same greenbelts within days.The city would like that to change, according to Patricia McInturff, director of the Seattle Human Services Department, the lead city agency in an ambitious regional plan to end homelessness in 10 years.The city also needs to do some bureaucratic housekeeping as part of the effort. That became obvious, she said, when staff from several departments cleared an encampment in a greenbelt in the northeast section of Queen Anne hill last year.The tents and shelters were all hauled off without notice, and the trash left behind wasn't cleaned up right away, as it should have been, McInturff conceded. Worse, fliers left at the encampment listed a referral number that no longer exists, she said.STANDARDIZING PROCEDURESThe Seattle City Council passed an ordinance in 1996 that set up a protocol for cleaning up encampments, "but no one was following it," McInturff said. Further clouding the issue and depending on their location, maintaining greenbelts is the responsibility of one or more of several agencies that include Parks and Recreation, City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, the Seattle Department of Transportation, Fleets and Facilities, the Department of Neighborhoods and the Seattle Center, she said.Those departments were also often operating with different definitions of everything from "abandoned" to "hazardous" to "contraband," according to a Jan. 11 draft of the proposed administrative rules.The procedure for dealing with encampments would be standardized for all departments under the administrative rules, "and all departments would have to follow it," McInturff said.Among the requirements is leaving notices about camp cleanups a minimum of 48 hours before they happen and hiring nonprofit groups to do outreach work with the homeless, McInturff said.Also for the first time, personal property such as photographs will be kept in storage at a North End location for 60 days, she said. "If we find something with a phone number on it, we will call that number," McInturff added.Once it's up and running, the new Customer Service Bureau will act as a clearinghouse for reports and cleanups of encampments, she said: "The policy is going to hold departments' feet to the fire."For example, the different departments would have 10 days to clean up camps on their property, and staff would have to go back to a cleanup site a week later, McInturff said: "If it's repopulated, it starts all over again.FINDING SHELTERThe department director is cautiously optimistic the city can get a handle on the homeless problem, but McInturff concedes it will be a daunting task.Also new is a mandate for McInturff to find shelter space for people if none is available in existing locations. During warm weather, the city's shelters are only 86-percent full, compared with 100-percent during icy conditions, she said. Still, availability of beds is only part of the problem. "Many of the people who live in the greenbelts may have been kicked out of shelters or don't want to follow the rules," McInturff said.But those people also need options, something the city hopes to provide by spending more money on outreach efforts, she said. Also a source of help would be the Veterans Administration, since between 20 to 30 percent of homeless men are veterans, according to McInturff.Homeless count downThe problem of homelessness could be worse. The numbers in King County have gone down during the last two yearly counts in January, she said: "They aren't huge numbers, but [the count] is down."The city spends around $40 million a year on efforts to prevent and end homelessness, according to a fact sheet from the Human Services Department. That includes maintaining 1,189 beds for the homeless and 100 family-voucher units.McInturff didn't have the figures from the head count this year, but last year's count revealed there were 1,851 men, women and even children living on the streets in King County. PUBLIC COMMENTThe proposed new administrative rules are subject to public review and comment during a public comment period ending on Thursday, Jan. 31. The city also will conduct a public hearing on the proposed rules and procedures on Monday, Jan. 28, from 6 to 7:30 p.m., in the Rainier Room, Northwest Rooms, at Seattle Center.Staff writer-at-large Russ Zabel can be reached at 461-1309 or[[In-content Ad]]