Seattle declared a homelessness emergency, but there hasn’t been much sense of urgent action. City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw has a radical plan to change that — by locating disaster-relief-style stations with pods or tiny houses in every part of the city.
It’s been three months since Seattle declared a homelessness emergency. But on Tuesday, along South Dearborn Street, tents and tarps dotted the greenbelts and crawl spaces beneath the bridges like unfortunate spring crocuses. So did mounds of garbage.
This is not news. It’s been like this for months — along this arterial and countless others around the city.
“Are we acting like it’s truly an emergency?” City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said Tuesday. “I acknowledge that by our response it doesn’t always feel like it.”
So Bagshaw, who heads the city committee overseeing homelessness, has begun formulating a far more radical plan. It seeks to treat the growing street homelessness as an emergency, literally.
“What would we do in the event of a disaster, like an earthquake? How would we house people who need help?” Bagshaw says. “We’re thinking along those lines of treating this more like a response to a natural disaster.”
The idea, as Bagshaw sketched out to me in a series of email exchanges and an interview, is akin to what the European Union did in response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Here’s how it would work:
All seven districts of the city would host 100 to 150 units each of emergency homeless housing (for a total of about 1,000 new units). These could be disaster-relief pods, similar to FEMA trailers. Or the 96-square-foot “tiny houses” with heat and electricity that recently went up in a small prototype cluster in the Central District.
Neighborhood groups would be tasked with siting the camps — no small political feat there. Volunteers would build the tiny houses. But each district, like the EU nations, would be required to take in a minimum number of refugees. The camps would be managed by social-service providers, and have rules and security.
In return, the city would agree to finally begin some clear enforcement of the no-camping law. It would take time, but Bagshaw’s idea is that Seattle would establish a minimum standard that it simply isn’t OK to camp on sidewalks, under bridges and in greenbelts for extended periods of time.
“We’re getting it from all sides,” Bagshaw said when I asked her to explain the spark for her proposals. “The advocates say: ‘You can’t clear out the camps, the homeless have nowhere else to go.’ The neighborhoods say: ‘You can’t allow this squalor to keep spreading. Do something.’
“I think both sides have a point. So I’m trying to find a new approach that cares for the homeless, but also gives us a cleaner, safer city.”
If it sounds impossible, a week ago the mayor of Portland, Ore., unveiled a very similar plan. He wants to open 10 campgrounds for the homeless. In return, “By offering clear options for where homeless Portlanders can sleep each night, police should be able to conduct more targeted enforcement when necessary,” the mayor’s office there said.
Originally Bagshaw suggested new tent cities in all seven Seattle districts. But a number of advocates and business leaders have become excited instead about building tiny houses. So far she’s shopped her ideas to a number of groups but hasn’t yet submitted a formal proposal.
At the current 14-unit Tiny House Village, in a church-owned lot at 22nd and Union, each home cost only $2,400. Residents each pay $90 a month to cover utilities.
The tiny houses are considered an improvement over the mat-on-the-floor shelter model because residents get their own space with a door and a lock.
At $2,400 each, Bagshaw could have her 1,000 tiny homes for $2.4 million — only a third of what the city has already appropriated for the homelessness emergency.
Her plan is for short-term relief, separate from the effort to build more permanent affordable housing.
Of course, finding places to put the houses will be many times more difficult than finding the money.
“Are people going to be really mad in the neighborhoods?” Bagshaw said. “Uh, yes. They will be mad. But if we have a solid quid pro quo for them, with enforcement — with ending this sense that anyone can camp wherever they want — then my hope is that people start to come on board.
“Seattle can’t keep on with this open-door, sleep-anywhere policy,” Bagshaw said.
Could Seattle police even enforce a no-camping rule? There are so many encampments right now, the cops may end up doing little else.
What about the homeless who, due to addiction or severe mental-health problems, might be unwelcome to live in a tiny-house village? At first Bagshaw suggested the city establish some “wet” camps, where addicts could freely use drugs or drink. But she backed off that because siting such a camp would be politically radioactive.
Others have said, “If you build it, more homeless will come.” Still others say 1,000 disaster-relief homes are not enough. There still will be people under bridges with no place to go.
But Seattle’s got to try something. Just look around.
Tuesday I went down to The Jungle, the encampment where five people were shot in January. Three weeks on, even the site of that horror — a spot under the freeway known as The Cave — has been repopulated by tents and makeshift shelters. There’s been no real effort to clean it up. So it’s like a mass shooting never happened.
Would Bagshaw’s emergency-response plan work? It’s easy to find flaws with it. But no easier than it is to look out the car window and see that what we’re doing now isn’t working.