Seattle cannot — and should not — attempt to sweep away homelessness, one camp, one person at a time. But it also cannot tolerate widespread illegal camping.
SEATTLEITES rightly feel overwhelmed with outdoor homeless encampments. There has been a tenfold increase in the number of encampments reported to the city since 2013 — 3,046 as of the end of June. In just the past year, the number more than doubled.
In response, crews this year have hauled away more than 125 tons of trash. And yet drifts of garbage, needles and feces pile up at freeway underpasses, the Chinatown International District, Ballard and elsewhere.
What is the city, in the midst of a homeless crisis, to do? Seattle cannot — and should not — attempt to sweep away homelessness one camp, one person at a time. But it also cannot tolerate widespread illegal camping. Doing so damages the city’s livability and hurts businesses while condoning squalid living conditions in a supposed progressive city.
The city’s response should be balanced — compassion with pragmatism, combining cleanups and outreach.
Unfortunately, the Seattle City Council on Tuesday veered wildly off track by suddenly introducing legislation that would radically stifle enforcement of unsanctioned homeless encampments. The legislation was written by social-justice groups philosophically opposed to such enforcement. It goes so far as to reward homeless campers $250 per person if a Byzantine process that calls for a 30-day notice of pending sweeps is not followed to a T.
The lone vote against introducing the legislation — Councilmember Tim Burgess — described it as effectively creating a right to camp on public property, including parks and schools. He’s right: The ordinance makes it impossible to move a homeless camp off public lands for 30 days except in hazardous circumstances. If Seattleites think the homeless camping situation is bad now, this legislation, if not changed, would make it worse.
The leftward-leaning council offered a clear illustration how far askew it is on the issue. A large group of elderly residents of the Chinatown International District showed up to testify on Tuesday that homeless camps under Interstate 5 at South Jackson Street added to needles and crime outside their food bank. Those are the same camps that the historic Wing Luke Museum said depressed attendance, raising concerns about its future.
Yet before those residents could testify, Council President Bruce Harrell chose to first put the legislation to a vote to send it to a committee. Only then did Qiu Feng Peng, an elderly resident, tell the council, “Seniors are even afraid to go outside right now.”
For a council that talks so much about confronting race and social justice, it was a blatant silencing of a valued, vulnerable community.”
For a council that talks so much about confronting race and social justice, it was a blatant silencing of a valued, vulnerable community.
The council’s action also stuck it to Mayor Ed Murray, who has already appointed a task force to review the city’s policies on homeless-encampment sweeps. Those policies clearly need fixing, as The Times’ Mike Baker documented in a story about homeless people’s belongings being lost by a dysfunctional bureaucracy.
That task force, co-chaired by former Councilmember Sally Clark, should find a better balance on the question of homeless camps. Whether the City Council listens is an entirely different question.