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Humane treatment needed in helping homeless find shelter

By Yurij Rudensky and Elisabeth Smith
Special to The Times

WE are living in a state of emergency. Every day, nearly 3,000 men, women and children sleep on the streets and in vehicles. Next year, that number is all but guaranteed to increase. There is broad consensus that Seattle needs a new approach in its response to this crisis, the only question is: What will that look like?

A proposed ordinance has been thoughtfully crafted by City Council members and a coalition of advocates, including Columbia Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington to provide an answer. It does not tie the city’s hands. Instead, it addresses many of the issues raised by neighborhoods while confronting the circumstances of unsheltered homelessness as they are, not as we wish them to be.

To understand the intent of the ordinance, we first need to acknowledge the realities of the situation.

We know Seattle does not have enough space indoors for people experiencing homelessness. This means that for the foreseeable future, people will continue to live in public spaces — this will be true whether we believe this should be tolerated or not. And hardening the response across the board only serves to drive people underground and further from finding a path off the streets.

We know that neighborhoods have real and legitimate concerns about conditions at some of these sites. Simply put, people who lack access to housing almost certainly lack consistent access to basic services, such as garbage collection, toilets and needle containers. And so waste ends up in our public spaces, causing neighborhoods and people living unsheltered to suffer.

We know that dangerous criminal behavior cannot be tolerated and puts our community at risk. Our police officers, paramedics and firefighters must be able to respond to emergencies in swift and appropriate ways. This is for the good of us all, including people living unsheltered, who are just as likely — if not more so — to be the victims of crime.

We also know that people living unsheltered at times stay in locations that are unsafe or unsuitable. Largely, this is because people are chased, evicted from one site to the next and offered “nowhere” as the only alternative, which reflects a cold refusal to confront reality. Nonetheless, it is unacceptable for people, even if unsheltered, to block sidewalks, impede traffic, stay on school grounds or frustrate the broader public’s use of parks or other community spaces.

Given these truths, the new approach must acknowledge that people will stay in public spaces until we build enough accessible housing and 24-hour shelters. It must provide mechanisms to move people who stay in places that are unacceptable and to allow for neighborhood input on these determinations. It must also give people living without shelter access to garbage collection, toilets and needle containers and hold them responsible for being good neighbors. It must not frustrate our emergency responders from fulfilling their service to all Seattle residents.

And this is exactly what the proposed ordinance would do. It does not establish a right to camp. But it requires city officials to point people to alternatives whenever individuals stay in unacceptable locations, such as school grounds. It creates an expectation that people camping maintain cleanliness and order in locations that are tolerable. Ultimately, the ordinance clears a path for bringing people indoors for good once appropriate spaces become available. The goal is not to hobble the city’s interventions but to make such events productive.

This is what a fair, balanced and compassionate response looks like. No one wants to see our public spaces double as living quarters. But neither magical thinking nor an iron fist will change the number of people living unsheltered.

Over the next several weeks, there will be opportunities to fine-tune language to minimize unintended consequences and address additional concerns. This is the legislative process, and the framework will be better for it. But before winter hits, our elected officials must take action by passing this ordinance.

Yurij Rudensky is an attorney with the Economic Justice Project at Columbia Legal Services. Elisabeth Smith is legislative director at the ACLU of Washington.


Tent encampments threatening businesses and neighborhoods

By Taylor Hoang
Special to The Times

SEATTLE needs to act now to clean up illegal encampments and enforce public safety and health codes instead of creating more bureaucratic hurdles. Present conditions in Seattle’s Chinatown International District are intolerable. A proposed ordinance from Columbia Legal Service and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington that is before the City Council would make conditions worse, not only in this district, but across the city.

On Aug. 28, my hardworking mother, who is the owner of Huong Binh Restaurant located in Little Saigon, was robbed at gunpoint in front of her restaurant as she was closing up for the night. The violent act was done in a matter of seconds. Thank goodness she was not harmed. Though the despicable act was quick, the long-term emotional toll it has taken on her will last a lifetime. She is frightened, nervous and anxious, but feels tremendously thankful to be able to go home to her family and friends.

Qiu Feng Peng addresses the Seattle City Council in Chinese expressing her concerns about safety, especially in the Chinatown International District. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Qiu Feng Peng addresses the Seattle City Council in Chinese expressing her concerns about safety, especially in the Chinatown International District. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

My mother is a small-business owner. And at 64, she still works 14 hours a day, seven days a week to support her ailing father, her brothers and sisters, and provides for the educational needs of her nieces and nephews overseas. My mother is the most generous person I know — caring for her employees, always available to help with my family and even feeding the homeless people who come to her door. She diligently pays her taxes and abides by all the rules.

She is not unlike many small-business owners in the Seattle Chinatown International District who are on the margin of survival — she has to make every penny count to stay in business. The loss sustained from the robbery is a heavy one. As a small-business owner and one with limited skills and resources, she has had to face many challenges that other U.S.-born business owners don’t have. However, the increased public-safety and health risks surrounding illegal encampments, open drug use and criminal activity in the International District have profoundly affected her small business and taken an emotional and physical toll.

The increased public-safety issues related to illegal encampments in the area affect not just small businesses, but also the Wing Luke Museum, a longtime landmark of the district, which nearly shut down in July due to crime and trash surrounding an unauthorized encampment a block away. My own staff refuses to park in certain areas due to safety concerns. Meanwhile, elderly residents are assaulted and cars vandalized.

Seattle’s Chinatown International District is ground zero, where a community’s vibrancy and ability to address fundamental public-safety and health responsibilities collide. As a community of predominantly immigrant people of color, it suffers the most when we endlessly debate how to address homelessness while public-safety and health issues are left as secondary concerns.

The district will not survive and thrive with inaction. Just look at the freeway ramps at Rainier Avenue South and Interstate 90 and judge whether public-safety and health issues are being addressed under current codes. The greater bureaucratic hoops the City Council is considering with regards to the encampment ordinance would make matters worse citywide.

Tents and encampments are not acceptable housing solutions. We need to ensure immediate health and public safety of the homeless, other residents, customers and visitors while reforming our service-delivery system so there are no unsheltered people in our city.

This legislation moves in the wrong direction: It would tie the city’s hands when it comes to addressing health and safety issues resulting from encampments in public spaces, such as parks, public sidewalks and roadways.

As business owners, we are the first point of interaction with many homeless individuals in the district. And many times over, we are the ones to provide a warm meal or a spare blanket for those individuals. My mother is a prime example of that generosity and compassion, and certainly understands the human dignity and respect afforded to everyone.

However, the debate on homelessness and proposed policies to protect their rights should not be done at the expense of hardworking individuals. Advocates speak about the need to strike a balance between the needs of the homeless and the community. Right now, there is no balance, and the proposed legislation would make matters worse.

Taylor Hoang is a small-business owner, leader in the ethnic-business community and executive director of Ethnic Business Coalition, a nonprofit committed to the success of minority-owned businesses.