Polls repeatedly prove it to be true: The biggest challenge come November for Seattle’s mayoral candidates will be to convince voters that their leadership will make a dent in the city’s enduring homelessness crisis.  

A Wednesday mayoral debate on homelessness between candidates Bruce Harrell and M. Lorena González revealed sharp differences in the way the two politicians are making this pitch to voters, with Harrell leaning on his longtime community bona fides and González focused on new policy to transform the city’s housing stock.

Throughout the debate, hosted by The Seattle Times and regional funders coalition We Are In, Harrell emphasized his roots growing up in the Central District as well as the experience of recognizing people he grew up with currently facing homelessness. He offered hazy details on responding to encampments, but stressed the need for outreach tailored to the needs of people living outside and a plan to study the way the city spends its resources on homelessness.

2021 Seattle mayoral candidates Lorena Gonzalez, left, and Bruce Harrell. (Courtesy of the campaigns)

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“Seattle should not look at this as though we have a scarcity of resources,” Harrell said. “At the same time, we will pursue every type of progressive tax revenue that the state has given us, every single dime we can get. We will also tap into these corporations who are doing quite well through their corporate social responsibility efforts, but I believe this is going to be a team approach in our city.”

González, meanwhile, aimed to showcase the contrast among herself, her opponent and the current mayoral administration by expressing support for ending single-family zoning and forced encampment removals, both positions endorsed by a more left-leaning wing of Seattle politics.

“I’m the only candidate in this race who has unequivocally stated that I do not support forcibly removing people from public spaces when there is insufficient shelter or homes to offer people who desperately need it,” González said. “As mayor, my goal is to end homelessness, not hide it.”

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The candidates share overlap in their political careers: They’re both lawyers who held the same job as City Council president, presiding over a legislative body often at odds with the mayor’s office over homelessness policy and dealing with encampments. 

But on the campaign trail, they’ve appealed to different sympathies around the homelessness crisis.

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.

Harrell has tapped into the frustrations of people living near encampments or parks that have increasingly seen a growing number of tents. He hosted two press conferences near homeless encampments in North Seattle and promised “consequences” for people living outside who do not take up offers of shelter before encampment removals.  

In Wednesday’s debate, however, Harrell was vague in response to a Seattle Times reader-submitted question about what, exactly, those consequences would be, instead saying they should be “individualized on whatever action is occurring.” He said the city first needs to understand why some homeless people in encampments refuse offers of shelter, raising the possibility of mental health challenges and untreated trauma as needs that also should be addressed.

He also touted a plan to build 1,000 units of shelter within the first six months of his administration and another 1,000 units within a year, though González slammed the idea on Wednesday as a “verbatim facsimile” of Compassion Seattle, a measure struck from the ballot that sought to create more shelter beds in exchange for more enforcement of clearing people from living in public spaces.

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“The very same real estate developers, corporate CEOs and Republicans who went big on Compassion Seattle have gone in big on supporting my opponent,” González said. “And that is because the foundation of his plan is to legitimize sweeps.”

González said encampments should “end” when “the city does its job and provides the shelter and the housing that’s necessary to actually transition people out of poverty.” She also said her administration would “quickly and immediately” assess every encampment in the city to create individualized service plans for the people living in them.

González additionally named ending single-family zoning across the city as a cornerstone of her plan to increase affordable housing in the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods — a position Harrell said he held reservations about.

Both candidates shared concerns about the limitations of tiny homes, a type of shelter that the current City Council wants to expand. González said she would take cues from a coalition of people who have experienced homelessness and the Regional Homelessness Authority, whose new CEO has been openly critical of tiny homes, to create a transition plan out of tiny homes within the first 100 days of her administration. Harrell also said he supported programs to mentor people inside the tiny home villages and transition them into permanent housing.

In a crowded August primary, Harrell led González by 2 percentage points — he won 34% of the vote to her 32%.

On Thursday, candidates for Seattle City Council, Seattle City Attorney and King County Council go head-to-head in a second night of virtual debates on homelessness, starting at 5:30 p.m. Register at st.news/2021debates.