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Saturday, April 12, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rules eased on clearing homeless camps

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle city workers last summer destroyed and discarded tents and sleeping bags belonging to homeless people camping in greenbelts in Queen Anne.

Homeless advocates called the treatment inhumane, and the City Council called for a stop to the sweeps.

On Friday, city officials said the camps are a threat to everyone's health and safety, and will continue to be cleared as they have been for the past 15 years. But no longer will the city throw away homeless people's belongings, and before an area on public property is cleared, outreach workers will talk with the people there about available services.

Officials estimate 100 to 300 people live in encampments on 25 sites around the city.

If people are living in a greenbelt, "you can't engage them and you can't give them the services they need," said Patricia McInturff, Seattle's human-services director, who is retiring Wednesday. "We would like the opportunity to give them that."

Under an executive order Mayor Greg Nickels signed this week:

• Three tents or shelters within 300 feet of each other will be considered an unauthorized encampment, and people living there will be given 72 hours to remove their belongings.

• Outreach workers from Evergreen Treatment Services will go to the camps to let people know how they can get help from different agencies.

• If belongings are not removed within 72 hours, they will be stored for 60 days at Westbridge Warehouse, 4209 W. Marginal Way on the west side of the Duwamish River.

• The city will fund 20 more shelter beds, available Monday at the Compass Center in Pioneer Square, and officials will open an additional emergency shelter at City Hall if needed.

The rules have been discussed for months. Last month, homeless advocates pitched about 50 tents on the steps of City Hall to protest some parts of the city's proposal.

Tim Harris, executive director for Real Change, an activist newspaper on housing issues, said he appreciates that people will now receive notice and outreach services. But he added, "Overall, this remains a punitive approach that relies upon the criminalization of outdoor survival."

One unfair rule, Harris said, is that if new people camp on a site that has been cleared within the previous 60 days, they will not receive any notice or outreach.

If people camping on a site have been cited for camping elsewhere before, they won't receive 72 hours' notice to vacate, and won't be allowed to retrieve their belongings, a rule Harris also criticized.

City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen called the city's new approach "an improvement." He said, "The major disappointment of this approach is that it's still only shelter. The missing element is the permanent, supported housing."

McInturff said the city is two years into the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County, and while permanent housing is being built, it will take a decade. She estimated the new programs announced Friday would cost the city a few hundred thousand dollars a year.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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