I don’t support camping on school grounds, sidewalks, or activated park space. I am in favor of revamping our protocols to clearly define unsafe and unsuitable areas.
AS a Seattle City Council member, I have heard a range of public comments on how to address our homelessness crisis, and we can agree on two things: No one should be living outdoors, and our current approach is not working.
Current city protocol, established 11 years ago, provides homeless residents up to 72 hours’ notice before each cleanup occurs and access to outreach workers to connect to shelter and services. But more often than not, there are no available shelters or services that meet the individual’s needs.
After the 72-hour-notice period, a cleanup team may show up immediately, or it may be weeks. If the cleanup team shows up while the individual is at work, at an appointment or getting food, their physical belongings are confiscated. An unsheltered person is then left on the sidewalk with nothing and nowhere to go. The city’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services recently acknowledged that in the vast majority of areas from which people are evicted, existing residents or others return almost immediately. The evidence tells us that, clearly, something needs to change.
Another area of consensus: We need to focus on long-term solutions, particularly getting people into housing. Voters did their part a couple months ago, approving a $290 million affordable-housing levy that will yield 2,100 housing units by the end of its 7-year term.
The Mayor’s Office also has recently come out with a proposal to create a systemic change in the way we respond to homelessness, called Pathways Home, which prioritizes coordinating services and outreach toward housing. In this year’s budget process, the City Council is continuing to examine how the city should prioritize resources toward more housing. Yet even the most ambitious housing strategy will take time to implement.
In the meantime, as people continue to experience needles and human waste in parks and slow police response times to emergency situations, there is a clear need to improve and focus the role for law enforcement and to improve the public-health conditions of our streets and parks immediately.
The evidence from our current practices makes clear that our current protocols, without any place for unsheltered residents to go, will continue to tie up resources and police officers’ time that would otherwise more effectively address public health and safety. If our larger goal is to transition individuals and families into permanent housing, then continually displacing them, destabilizing their lives and compromising connections to services are not producing the results we need. We are expending valuable resources and energy on a strategy that only shifts the problem around and offers a false sense of temporary security that solves no one’s problems.
Let me correct some misinformation that has been circulating: I do not support a policy that allows camping on school grounds, sidewalks or maintained park spaces. I am in favor of revamping our protocols to clearly define unsafe and unsuitable areas, such as schools, sidewalks and maintained parks — and we should allow people to stay in areas that are not problematic while we work to get them housing and services as quickly as possible.
Unsafe and unsuitable areas should be defined with input from neighborhood residents and businesses. In coordination with the Pathways Home and other housing strategies ramping up, this policy would expire in two years. The legislation has evolved significantly from what was introduced.
Seattle is not alone in this crisis — cities throughout the Puget Sound region and down the West Coast are facing similar crises. Portland recently changed its rules on camping on public land. Its strategy was to restrict the hours during which people could camp but not restrict the location. We have chosen a different approach — our policy would restrict the locations where people could camp.
As part of the ongoing budget-deliberation process, I support increased funding to address immediate public-health and safety concerns — meaning more public restrooms and more funding for needle and garbage pickup, allowing us to concentrate our efforts on providing long-term solutions to people who wouldn’t otherwise have them. In addition, I want to help law enforcement be better able to focus on responding to criminal behavior with the support it needs to address social-service and public-health needs. Toward that end, I support more funding for case managers working with police to help address the needs that often underlie low-level criminal offenses.
Homelessness is not a choice but rather a lack of choices. Rising income inequality, an epidemic of substance abuse, massive defunding of mental-health treatment at the state and federal levels and rapidly rising rents have created a “perfect storm” of factors leading to an unprecedented number of people living unsheltered across the country.
There’s no new “secret solution” to solving old problems like housing access, homelessness, drug addiction, poverty and public safety. What is new is the burden is placed increasingly on cities to tackle these challenges alone. But this year’s budget presents an opportunity to try new strategies for immediate harm reduction and long-term solutions.
I invite you to weigh in on how we allocate city resources toward doing the least harm and the most good. Above all, I will continue to advocate for funding to address the needs of our community further upstream — tackling the root causes instead of trying to sweep our problems under the rug.