The tents, dilapidated vehicles and piles of trash you see in almost every Seattle neighborhood have become an enduring fixture. So has the human suffering.
We should quickly prioritize addressing these tent encampments and follow the lead of other cities that have successfully tackled this issue. Since 2015, when the mayor declared a homelessness emergency, we have spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars — and there are success stories to tell — but, tragically, there is no comprehensive plan to remove these illegal tent encampments or to help those living in them. Not now. Not any time this year or next. Not in five years. They are essentially permanent.
That’s because the Seattle City Council’s preferred approach has been tolerance and accommodation, evidenced by its elimination last fall, despite Mayor Jenny Durkan’s strong objection, of the navigation teams — outreach workers paired with police officers — that successfully nudged people in encampments to accept shelter and social services.
The City Council’s laissez faire approach furthers the terrible damage of substance-abuse and mental-health disorders for the majority of encampment dwellers. It’s also an approach that denies the public access to parks, sidewalks and greenspaces. It enables criminal behavior that harms neighbors, businesses and other campers. It creates piles of trash and unsanitary conditions. It harms our tourism and hospitality industry, a key jobs-producing component of Seattle’s eventual economic recovery. It’s appallingly misguided, worsened by the council’s convoluted and confusing rules and regulations designed to prevent, or at least delay, the removal of any encampment.
There is a much better, more humane way forward.
Let’s implement a specific plan that is both compassionate in meeting urgent human needs and fulfills city government’s public health and safety obligations. A plan designed to remove encampments and prevent their return, to restore access to our parks and public spaces for everyone’s enjoyment, to help campers by providing enhanced substance-abuse and mental-health services. A plan that no longer ignores or excuses the criminal behavior — assault, burglary of homes, businesses and cars, arson, theft — of some unsheltered individuals that has created chaos in parts of the city and shattered confidence in the city government.
Look at the facts.
Our parks, sidewalks, streets, freeway rights of way and greenspaces have become “home” to an estimated 3,738 individuals, almost one-half (46%) of Seattle’s total homeless population, according to the latest (January 2020) point-in-time count. Most of the unsheltered population reports living with mental-health or substance-abuse challenges, often both.
It’s clear we need a new, more purposeful approach or the encampments will continue to grow in number. And we should move quickly to prepare for better weather and the decline of the COVID-19 pandemic when park usage will soar.
The plan should meet the medical needs of campers — a major cause of their unsheltered living — by providing truly on-demand treatment for those with substance-abuse disorder or mental-health challenges. “On demand” means available the moment someone acknowledges a need for help: not next week or next month, not placement on a waiting list, but right now. Treatment services — both inpatient and outpatient options — should follow the science of what works best based on rigorous, independent, published evaluations.
The plan should recognize that these services won’t provide a quick cure, yet a long-term commitment to a patient’s recovery is essential. These services should use whatever state and county government funding is available but recognize that repurposed city funding will be needed to serve the target population effectively. We should stop waiting for another level of government to step up; the cost of inaction is devastating.
The plan should speed up Mayor Durkan’s surge strategy, including Monday’s announcement of a public-private partnership, to help accelerate the creation of more enhanced shelter capacity, tiny houses and rented hotel rooms to quickly move unsheltered people into safer, cleaner, warmer places.
Importantly, the plan must require written service plans for each unsheltered individual, a key success element endorsed by national experts and a dramatic shift from Seattle’s highly informal ad hoc outreach approach. The city recently funded additional outreach services but did not specify performance outcomes, allowing a dozen or so nonprofit organizations to use their own methodologies and success criteria. The plan should divide the city into service regions so outreach teams have a specific geographic area of responsibility, a change that will significantly increase accountability.
The plan should use a focused deterrence approach to criminal behavior, employing a range of interventions including arrest and prosecution, if necessary. This is not, as some claim, “the criminalization of homelessness.” It’s a considered response to specific people who are engaged in destructive, ongoing acts of violence or persistent criminal behaviors that significantly harm others, including other unsheltered persons. It is behavior focused, not homelessness focused.
The plan should recommit city government to the new but not yet operational Regional Homeless Authority, acknowledging that homelessness and encampments are a regional problem that requires a shared response with high accountability measures and regular public progress reports.
The plan should require either acceptance of services — such as shelter, temporary housing and treatment services — or removal, strongly encouraging people to choose but not allowing continued camping.
And, finally, the plan should acknowledge the importance of permanent, low barrier supportive housing — a “housing first” approach — because so many of the unsheltered are chronically homeless with serious addiction and mental-health needs. To reestablish their lives, they need a safe, warm and welcoming place with supportive health and social services.
This new plan will be expensive — primarily because of the need to significantly increase access to treatment services — but it’s doable with a reallocation of existing city funds. It will require a fierce determination to achieve desired outcomes and to resist the many competing interests that have crippled the city’s ability to successfully address the encampments.
Is this all a pie-in-the-sky fantasy? Could we actually serve our unsheltered and chronically homeless population better? The answer is absolutely “yes” because other cities have already done it. Look at Bakersfield-Kern County, California. Or Bergen County, New Jersey. Or Abilene, Texas. Each of these jurisdictions — along with more than 75 others across the country — joined Community Solutions, a national nonprofit organization, and rigorously followed their step-by-step process to reduce the unsheltered homeless population. It is a successful model Seattle should follow, and quickly.
A plan like this can eliminate unsafe encampments and start hundreds of individuals on a path to safe, stable and healthier lives. Wouldn’t that be worth it?