It’s a question that hovers everywhere this election season. From Capitol Hill to Redmond. In courtrooms and on the streets. Behind each decision that voters will make.

How should the region address homelessness?

Candidates in three hotly contested Seattle-area races wrangled over potential answers to that question Thursday in a series of fierce, half-hour debates that underscored how politically polarizing the crisis has become.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

In the debates, hosted by The Seattle Times and regional funders coalition We Are In, Seattle city attorney candidates Nicole Thomas-Kennedy and Ann Davison disagreed about almost everything, including the point of the job they both want.

Nikkita Oliver and Sara Nelson, candidates for an at-large seat on the Seattle City Council, clashed over views on addiction and spending.

And candidates for a suburban seat on the King County Council, Sarah Perry and Kathy Lambert, disputed who would be the better “fighter” against the crisis.

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Whats the job?

In the city attorney debate, Thomas-Kennedy promised to combat homelessness by defending Seattle’s renter protections in court and by ramping up alternatives to jail for many people charged with misdemeanors.

Research has demonstrated that “crimes of poverty and desperation are not mitigated and are increased by prosecution and jail time,” said the former public defender. “Putting someone living in a car and working into jail causes them to lose their home and their car.”

Davison described the conditions on Seattle’s streets as worse than in refugee camps where she once worked, vowing to help people while maintaining “limits” for bad behavior.

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An attorney who’s worked as an arbitrator in recent years, Davison said she would concentrate on prosecuting misdemeanors with the greatest impacts to victims.

Thomas-Kennedy, who describes herself as an abolitionist, said she would keep prosecution “on the table” for certain offenses, like those involving interpersonal violence. But reports on repeat offenders demonstrate that jail doesn’t work in the long run, she said. Rather than spending $200 per night on a jail cell, she would in many cases direct the money to social services, she said.

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Davison agreed that jail diversion should be an option but underlined the serious nature of certain misdemeanors, arguing that the job of the city attorney is to enforce laws on the books.

That’s where the debate took a turn.

“I think what my opponent is talking about is a clear non-understanding of what a prosecutor’s job actually is,” Thomas-Kennedy said, noting that the city rarely prosecutes wage theft. “A prosecutor’s job is to use discretion … to seek justice, not to seek convictions.”

Though she understands “the discretionary aspect,” the job is “to protect the public,” Davison emphasized in her reply.

Thomas-Kennedy generally opposes removal of homeless encampments from public spaces. Although she would defend the city against legal challenges related to the clearing of encampments, she would advise policy makers against taking such steps to start with, she said.

By the time the candidates said goodbye, Thomas-Kennedy had called Davison out for seeking statewide office as a Republican “in the Trump years,” and Davison had alluded to Thomas-Kennedy “demonizing law enforcement.”

Spending views

Oliver and Nelson started out on the same page, more or less, in their City Council debate, each voicing support for land-use changes that would allow denser housing to be built on blocks now reserved for single-family houses, basement apartments and backyard cottages.

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But the Position 9 candidates diverged after that point, as Oliver, an attorney and educator, stressed the need for the city to help create housing for people with very low incomes as zoning changes are made.

Nelson, a brewery owner and former council staffer, pointed to “workforce housing” as important, because so many people “make too much for low-income housing” and too little to pay market rents.

A question about drug use and homelessness widened the divide.

Though the candidates agreed that the city should start funding mental health and addiction services directly, rather than continuing to leave that work to King County, Oliver suggested Seattle might pay for such services and for supportive housing with “progressive revenue” — new or higher taxes on large corporations and/or wealthy people. That revenue also would make the city’s budget more resilient in recessions, Oliver said.

The city absolutely needs to spend more on affordable housing, because costly housing is the principal cause of homelessness, with drug addiction often a symptom of suffering on the streets, Oliver said.

“There are plenty of wealthy people in homes that actively use drugs,” Oliver added.

Nelson went in another direction. More spending may be needed but should only be contemplated after a better plan is developed in conjunction with the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, with clearer cost pegs, she said.

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Oliver and some others seem to think there’s “some simple way of getting out of this crisis,” by spending more money, Nelson said, arguing that Oliver’s viewpoint is “naive and ignores the reality of mental illness and addiction.”

The candidates also butted heads over encampments. Making sanitation services much more available at such sites is a public health imperative until more housing units come available, Oliver said. Nelson acknowledged that people living outside appreciate such services but said City Hall should not be “distracted” from the goal of moving people indoors and returning spaces like parks to regular uses.

Who’s the “fighter”?

Perry was on the offensive in her debate against Lambert, the longtime County Council incumbent in District 3, which stretches from Woodinville, Redmond and Sammamish to the Cascades.

The political consultant and former Seattle University administrator repeatedly made the case for new leadership.

“I’m looking at what was accomplished” and only change “could make a difference and make an improvement” considering the thousands of people who lack housing across the county, Perry said, pledging to work with religious congregations, nonprofits and other local players to shelter more people.

“We’ve seen 20 years of the same leadership … and we’re in far worse shape than we were, so you know, we just need somebody different,” she added later.

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Previously a Republican state lawmaker, Lambert defended her record, saying her council votes on homelessness matters have mostly matched those of Perry’s Democratic endorsers.

Lambert was an early supporter of the “housing first” approach, she said, mentioning a Seattle project that serves formerly homeless adults with chronic alcohol use disorders.

Neither candidate offered particularly detailed plans to increase the county’s supply of housing for people with very low incomes, nor to shelter people this winter amid COVID-19 transmission concerns.

Perry brought up the county’s acquisition of a Redmond hotel for homeless housing that some neighbors said they were blindsided by, blaming the incumbent for not conducting outreach and building support ahead of time.

“My opponent doesn’t understand the difference between the executive branch and the legislative branch,” Lambert retorted. “It was an executive, not a legislative decision.”

Though Lambert agreed with Perry on various points, Perry argued she would place homelessness higher on her agenda, twice saying she would be a “fighter” for the district.