What’s happening with the squatters in the old Seattle Times building is a metaphor for the whole city.
When the city swept the old Seattle Times building a few weeks back to roust some squatters, it was done in a way that almost guaranteed a long-simmering crisis.
As police searched the building with flashlights last month, I watched as squatters rushed out of a side door of the abandoned offices toting all manner of stolen goods. They ran — sometimes strolled — right past officers, who for the most part ignored them.
One dashed by carrying a drill and a propane blowtorch. Others came out with bikes in pieces. Another walked out whistling with a backpack filled with copper pipe, presumably harvested from the building’s walls.
When I asked officers standing nearby whether they were going to question the guy with the copper, they shrugged.
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“We’re here to secure the building, that’s it,” one said.
Later, the sergeant in charge predicted that by nightfall, the squatters would be back.
Of course they are back, and at the newspaper we are getting to know a few of them, at least in passing. They are kids, in their 20s, who admit they’re using heroin or meth. They insist it’s safer for them to be dry inside a defunct old building than living under a bridge, and on that point they may be right.
Now the city is considering legal action against the Canadian company that owns the building for not securing it. This is fine but has raised a series of questions about what the city’s approach to squatters and homelessness really ought to be.
First, the number one place to find squatters in Seattle isn’t at the old Seattle Times building. It’s on city-owned property. There are tents and makeshift cardboard structures in city medians and on public land all over town. Example: Judkins Park, a city park, has become a makeshift homeless encampment, sometimes with eight or 10 people living in the park bathrooms or picnic shelters.
A few blocks from the old Seattle Times building, climbers on REI’s climbing wall can look out the windows and see a dozen-plus tents and sleeping bags in the underbrush in the city’s roadway median.
Maybe the city should consider first taking legal action against itself, for not securing its own property?
Second, it’s troubling that the city seems paralyzed. At the old Seattle Times building, nobody intervenes. After the one sweep, now if you call the police they say they aren’t responding to calls about squatters there anymore. Nor do social-service agencies come out.
I don’t think it makes sense to jail trespassing drug addicts. But I thought we had an innovative drug-diversion program in this city. The philosophy is that drug addicts such as these squatters tend to commit only petty crimes, and so what they need most is help, not incarceration.
That sounds right to me. But you do have to arrest them first to get them into drug diversion. What possible good can it do to roust them from a building and then stand and watch as they run off with copper-stuffed backpacks, all the while shrugging that in a matter of hours they’ll be back?
This isn’t just about my old office building. It’s a problem playing out across the city. There are squatters in some 200 buildings, according to the city. That doesn’t include the growing, nonsanctioned encampments on public land — along north Lake Union, near the stadiums, at the Northgate exits, you name it.
I don’t have answers, but this is why I support tent cities (flawed as they are). At least they’re managed by someone. And social workers show up there to offer help.
None of that’s happening at the old Seattle Times building. On Friday I saw a kid not more than 18 or 20 climbing through a broken window. I asked him if he was worried about the police. No. Do building owners come to check on the place? Social workers? Anyone? Nope.
How long do you think you can live in there, I asked.
He said: “They’ll have to tear this place down to get us out.”
So when the apartment high rise comes, then they’ll move on. Story of the city right now.