A new Seattle University study shines a much-needed light on the growth of local policies statewide that criminalize homelessness.
THOUSANDS of families are homeless in Washington, including at least 10,000 people right here in King County, according to the annual One Night Count.
The homeless are often hidden from view, but some can be seen sleeping on sidewalks and sitting in public spaces with whatever dignity and possessions they have left.
Ending homelessness has to be a community effort, yet city leaders continue to pass policies that hurt instead of help.
A February Seattle Times editorial called out local governments from Sammamish to Redmond, Kent to North Bend for putting up barriers to prevent faith-based organizations from assisting the homeless. At the time, they blocked tent cities, charged exorbitant permit fees or caved to opposition from neighbors.
Now comes a new survey from the Seattle University School of Law analyzing municipal codes of 72 cities statewide. The study finds that cities are increasingly — sometimes inadvertently and in the name of public safety — criminalizing “necessary, life-sustaining activities” by those who find themselves without a home.
Cities large and small outlaw or limit basic acts, such as sitting, standing or sleeping in public places, or overnight parking by people with no other place except their cars to sleep. Since 2000, local governments have enacted 288 new ordinances targeting homelessness. Auburn ranks the highest with 14 ordinances, compared to Seattle’s seven.
Cities and counties — and the taxpayers they serve — must ask themselves what they are trying to accomplish. These ordinances may simply seek a civil and hygienic public space. But an equitable society must also gauge the unintended consequences.
Penalties vary between $250 and $5,000. Enforcement is inconsistent and many offenders are unable to pay, possibly digging them deeper into homelessness. They are chased by criminal or credit histories that make their housing search more difficult.
The Seattle University study is a timely reminder that public policy should enhance, not undermine, the work being done to end homelessness and get people back on their feet.
Small steps matter. While the city works on ending homelessness, Mayor Ed Murray recently announced plans to convert city-owned property into a 100-bed shelter by late summer.
Cities and counties should also offer hygiene centers, such as Seattle’s Urban Rest Stop, which is an alternative to urinating on the sidewalk.
Homelessness is a collective problem, requiring regional solutions. That means adequate services and affordable housing. But it requires municipalities to consider the effects of policies that, unintentionally, perpetuate the cycle of homelessness.