What to do with drug-addicted homeless people living on the streets is difficult, because traditional shelters won't take them. But the city's experimental attempt to do it on the cheap at a tiny house village was a bust.
Within a minute of parking outside the Licton Springs homeless encampment, while I’m still sitting inside checking my phone, there’s a knock at my driver’s-side window.
“You lookin’?” asks a man in a baseball cap.
I am here to look around, but no, I’m not lookin’. That I was solicited to buy drugs at noon on a weekday is testament to the open-air drug market that persists on the streets outside Seattle’s first-ever experiment in letting homeless encampment residents freely use drugs.
Last week the City of Seattle announced it will close the village of tents and shed-sized “tiny houses” up on Aurora Avenue North. The city sort of admitted that the experiment was a bust — at least that too many inhabitants camped there far too long, with a majority staying for more than a year.
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Not acknowledged was that by allowing residents to drink or use drugs, the camp became a magnet for dealers and other users who congregated outside. A Seattle Times analysis found that 911 calls on the block just behind the camp spiked 62 percent in the year after the camp moved in.
When I was there on a recent weekday, about a dozen people using and selling drugs congregated behind the camp, on a street fronted by rows of town houses.
Maybe this camp was just put in the wrong place, as north Aurora has long struggled with street crime. Maybe it wasn’t managed well. Or maybe, as the city says now, there weren’t enough treatment services or professional staff.
Or: Maybe having camps in the city where people are allowed to use drugs is not a great idea?
I bring this up because Seattle is about to open another one, called Lake Union Village, at Eighth and Aloha streets in the burgeoning tech neighborhood. The proposed rule there is that residents will be allowed to drink or use drugs as long as they don’t do it in the camp’s common spaces.
Having places to send chronic street addicts is a crucial piece of any homelessness-response strategy. Seattle got mocked nationally for liberal nuttiness a decade ago when a nonprofit here built a “wet” apartment building for street alcoholics — “bunks for drunks” it was called. But this “housing first” approach -— get a home first, tackle your problems second -— has proved not only to work, but to be cheaper in the long run than rushing homeless addicts to the emergency room over and over again.
But central to the whole premise of housing first is the word “housing.” I’m a longtime booster of tent cities and tiny house villages as a step up from sleeping under a bridge. But they are not housing. They’re basically campgrounds.
They’re not as stable as a shelter facility or apartment building. As a result, the encampments that have been successful over the years have had some pretty strict rules. No drinking, no drugs, no late-night guests and so on.
It’s pretty obvious what went wrong at the Licton Springs Village. The camp itself seems to be fine. But it’s essentially a safe injection site for drugs, yet also an outdoor camp with a chain-link fence as its only barrier to the outside world. It’s not a shock that drug dealers have flocked there.
The federal government, via the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, already cautions against tent cities and tiny house villages because they are unstable environments (they aren’t “homelike” enough, the group says). A city consultant once derided them as “shacks.”
Given all that, it seems way too much to ask for the camps to handle the issue of chemical dependency, too.
The city’s admittedly in a bind here. They can’t send drug addicted homeless folks to most shelters, but it’s also a catastrophe to leave them on the street. Building new “low barrier” shelters takes money and time. So they’re aiming for a cheaper, temporary solution in the middle.
The first try didn’t work. Now the one in South Lake Union is scheduled to open next month, with extra counseling and treatment. Hopefully for the good of all it will work out better. But the worry is that by doing drug housing on the cheap like this, the city could end up giving the entire premise of “housing first” a bad name.