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King County Council discusses policy for removal of homeless encampments

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The King County Council is discussing a motion to establish standards for the removal of homeless encampments on public property in the county.

Councilmember Reagan Dunn sponsored the motion, noting the number of homeless encampments in unincorporated areas of King County. The county does not currently have rules for removing homeless encampments, according to council staff.

Some cities, like Auburn, have adopted ordinances to prohibit public camping, but residents from around the county feel like their local governments are not doing enough to remove the encampments that neighbor their homes, businesses and parks.

Dunn’s motion seeks to have a number of factors considered when determining whether it is appropriate to remove an encampment or not, with safety being the number one priority.

The motion emphasizes the consideration of sanitation quality and risk of exposure to infections such as hepatitis, the risk of fire, the prevalence of crime and whether or not vandalism is occurring at the site of the encampment. Additionally whether or not the encampment is impeding public operations will be taken into account as well.

He also said that the availability of local shelter should be taken into consideration when determining if it would be appropriate to clear the site of the camp if no alternative housing resources were available.

He described it as a “balanced, yet assertive” approach to the issue. Removals would need to be “urgent” before they could be conducted.

Dunn said the motion comes following the county’s acquisition of supportive housing facilities in Auburn, Redmond, and Renton as a part of the Health Through Housing initiative.

“In all, King County has spent nearly $1 billion on services for those experiencing homelessness since 2015, and it is not unreasonable to begin moving this population into County shelters and housing options that taxpayers have funded,” Dunn said via press release statement.

The motion also asks for the development of procedures of the removals of encampments. The motion currently contains measures to allow for public notice and comment before conducting a removal, but it is still unclear which agencies will be directly involved in the removal.

King County Councilmember, Girmay Zahilay, raised questions regarding what the “enforcement mechanism” of the removal would be, or if peace officers would be present. He raised questions about what would occur if people resisted the removal of the encampment or the referral of housing services.

The motion does not specify who would be trained to conduct the removal of the encampment.

It is also unclear how the new state laws limiting the situations in which police can use force will impact how encampments could be removed.

Dunn added that he had heard of encampment removals being met with armed resistance in isolated cases, and emphasized that it was important to avoid these kinds of risks.

The King County Executive would be part of determining the guidelines and enforcement terms as part of the motion, according to council staff.

Councilmember Joe McDermott raised concerns that the motion would be an “overlap” of the responsibilities of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, a governing body established to respond to all the nuances of the region’s homelessness crisis.

The motion has only been discussed currently, but will appear again before the council in the coming weeks.

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Cameron Sheppard

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Cameron Sheppard