Three Seattle City Council members — Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda, Kshama Sawant — want to permit tent encampments almost everywhere citywide.
This ill-conceived, very dangerous legislation (Council Bill 119796) would effectively allow camping across Seattle — including on sidewalks (if campers leave a 4-foot accessible pathway), planting strips, parks, open spaces and industrial lands.
Astonishingly, the council members even want to block police officers from removing encampments when someone calls police seeking removal of campers.
This proposal is wrong for three very significant reasons.
First, allowing camping everywhere is not a solution to homelessness. The proposed law, in effect during the COVID-19 civil emergency, won’t move one person into a safe and warm home or provide services the person may need and want. Nearly unfettered camping across the city, as this proposed law would certainly allow, is inhumane, helps no one escape homelessness, and risks continued harm to campers and neighbors.
Second, the proposed law perpetuates a common misperception, the belief that all unsheltered people have the same desires, expectations and willingness to accept help. They aren’t all the same. Many repeatedly refuse help. Some who are living in the hundreds of local ad hoc encampments are engaged in criminal behaviors — murder, rape, aggravated assault, theft, burglary, narcotics trafficking and arson. The city government has extensive documentation of these crimes.
The police cleared two encampments in the Chinatown-International District last week after a woman’s murder, a shooting, and spikes in assaults, thefts, burglaries and fires. The proposed ordinance would have blocked the police from taking this reasonable step to protect public safety.
Some say the police should arrest criminal offenders and allow other campers to remain. This reasoning ignores the inherently dangerous impact of encampment living because many campers struggle with severe substance-abuse disorders, a key driver of their damaging behavior. It’s perilous public policy to prohibit removal of neighborhood-endangering encampments.
Some suggest we shouldn’t remove encampments during the coronavirus pandemic because of CDC concerns that campers will spread disease as they disperse. A reasoned and fact-based approach — the essence of good public policy — would weigh all factors when making a removal decision, not just one.
Third, this proposal, which will be heard at 2 p.m. Wednesday before the council’s Select Committee on Homelessness Strategies and Investments, is a distraction from where the city council should be focusing its energy — on solutions.
Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine led the effort to reorganize our countywide response to homelessness, creating a new governing structure and setting accountability standards to spend taxpayer dollars more effectively. They also asked the state Legislature for a new local-option tax to help pay for more affordable housing, on-site support services for the chronically homeless, and public safety measures to reduce recidivism by former offenders.
Council members should focus on fully implementing the new regional approach to homelessness and persuading state legislators to adopt the new taxing authority. They also should greatly expand on-demand drug and mental-health treatment services, so no one is turned away when seeking help. Unlike the proposed camping-everywhere ordinance, these actions would actually help move people from the street into safe housing.
Last week, a new coalition of business leaders, housing advocates, health care professionals and academics — the Third Door Coalition — announced a detailed plan to house the estimated 6,500 chronically homeless people in King County and to provide the on-site services they need. The coalition’s focus is on raising nearly $1.7 billion in public and private funds. Council members should rally around this coalition, affirm their leadership, and help implement their plan.
The Third Door proposal isn’t a “pie in the sky” dream. Just last week, voters in the three-county region that comprises the Portland metro area passed, with nearly 60% approval, $2.5 billion in new taxes on their wealthiest residents and biggest businesses to address homelessness. Portland voters did this during the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Our regional voters would do the same, I believe, if presented with a specific plan, strong accountability standards, a regional approach, and political leadership focused on what will actually make a difference.
The Third Door Coalition plan meets these criteria — it is solution focused. Allowing camping almost everywhere and turning a blind eye to harmful criminal behavior certainly is not.
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