Earlier this month, a bill in the Washington Legislature that would have potentially doubled the number of shelter beds for homeless people in the state drew nearly 450 viewers for its first hearing.
All but seven of the viewers registered as opponents of the bill; everyone who testified, including homeless shelter staff, county government associations and Gov. Jay Inslee’s own housing expert, opposed it.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, would have required every county, and each city in Washington with more than 50,000 people, to have a shelter bed for every person living outside. The whole state had roughly 9,600 emergency shelter beds in 2019. That year, there were more than 21,000 homeless people statewide.
While adding homeless shelters throughout the state is usually a popular idea, this bill drew such ire because those extra beds were intended to allow police to approach homeless people living outside on public property, offer them one of those shelter spots, and tell the person to move on or face arrest if the person declines.
Federal courts have recently ruled that enforcing laws penalizing people for sleeping outside when there is no available shelter is unconstitutional. Like Fortunato, lawmakers are looking for ways to be able to force people out of homeless encampments without getting sued.
This new wave of rules comes as public outcry about homeless encampments has reached a new pitch: Camps have multiplied in the Seattle area as fears of coronavirus transmission make many homeless people wary of shelters, and COVID-19 safety precautions limit the number of people social service agencies and shelters can take.
“This is not a solution to homelessness,” Fortunato said. “This is simply getting people off the street.”
Last week, Mercer Island passed a law banning people sleeping outside or in vehicles on public property — but included language effectively telling police to first offer to take people to shelter, the closest of which is 5 miles away in Bellevue. News website PubliCola reported this month that a poll was circulating among Seattle voters testing support for a ballot measure to use existing government funds to treat mental illness and drug addiction, but give police more authority to intervene if homeless people didn’t accept help.
It’s unclear if these tough-love approaches help much, even in the short term.
But the desire to prevent entrenched homeless encampments has motivated many jurisdictions to try.
“Compassion with results”
Laws affecting sleeping and camping are not new: of 187 American cities, almost three-quarters had at least one law restricting camping in public — and of those, more than a third had been passed in the last 15 years, according to a 2019 survey by The National Homelessness Law Center, a homeless-advocacy group.
Fortunato’s bill was based on an “action plan” written by Seattle-area documentarian and right-wing provocateur Christopher Rufo, called “Compassion With Results.”
The bill was introduced around the same time former Seattle Mayor Tim Burgess wrote an op-ed for The Seattle Times calling on the city to provide on-demand treatment for drug use and mental illness and “end homeless tent camps with compassion and accountability.”
But Burgess, in an email, differentiated his approach from Fortunato’s.
“This isn’t about cracking down. It’s not about tough love. Some would like to define it that way, for sure,” Burgess wrote. “It’s about a direct focus on the medical conditions most of these campers have, providing treatment services and getting them housed. I think many people in Seattle just want to see progress and not a continuation of the status quo.”
Calls about people who are living outside usually fall to police, whose approach to homelessness has largely been, for decades, to tell people to move on and if they don’t, arrest them. That’s the approach Boise, Idaho, was taking, to the tune of hundreds of citations a year, when Robert Martin and 10 other homeless people, with the help of the National Homelessness Law Center, sued the city. They claimed the practice violated the Eighth Amendment, for imposing excessive fines.
In 2018, a federal court heard Martin v. Boise and agreed that it was unconstitutional to punish someone for sleeping outside if they didn’t have another place to go. Since then, courts in other places — including Oregon and, this month, Florida — have expanded the ruling.
This month, Boise officials settled with Martin and the surviving homeless people after more than a decade of litigation. The officials agreed to loosen their camping laws as part of the settlement.
These rulings, however, don’t box in larger cities with some existing shelter capacity that much: Seattle, for instance, has managed to carry out many camp removals, largely by declaring them a danger to public health or safety.
The city usually points to fires, drug dealing, or outbreaks of disease as reasons for clearing camps; Will Lemke, a spokesperson for the city, added that sometimes homeless camps blocked sidewalks, obstructing people in wheelchairs.
“It is a loophole that is the size of the grand canyon,” said Sara Rankin, a law professor and founder of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University. “It’s so easy to just sort of invoke that phrase, that there’s a public health or safety issue — it’s sort of this talismanic shield they can lift up and protect themselves from [the court decision].”
Other cities quickly created shelters — often tents inside fenced-off areas, or hutlike portable structures under big tents — and moved people out of homeless encampments and into those. After that, they started enforcing anti-camping laws again.
But while these may produce short-term reprieves from the sight of homeless camps, there’s little evidence they eliminate them for good: In Modesto, California, an organized encampment erected by authorities at the beginning of 2019 in the wake of the Martin v. Boise decision initially received praise. City officials said crime was going down. More than 700 people cycled through it in less than a year.
But in November 2019, the city shut it down after only 33 people got into housing, saying it wasn’t doing anything to solve homelessness. The following January, the number of homeless people counted outdoors was only one person fewer than the previous year.
This is also true in Seattle, where in 2019, 14% of the people who left emergency shelter got into housing, but at least 17% returned to homelessness, according to data from the King County homelessness database.
“Most of the people who go into shelter go back out onto the streets, for no other reason than the shelter is a temporary setting,” said Tristia Bauman, an attorney with the National Homelessness Law Center. “The services there are not ending people’s homelessness because they’re not addressing the drivers of homelessness.”
But proponents of so-called “tough love” approaches often disagree about what those drivers are.
Housing vs. treatment
Fortunato’s legislation didn’t just come with a shelter requirement; it would also have required that shelters prohibit drugs and alcohol on their premises, or get participants to agree to take part in drug treatment or mental health services.
Complaints about homelessness in neighborhoods in Seattle almost always touch on the fact that the people causing the most disruption seem to be drug users, seriously mentally ill, or both.
This may have worsened since the pandemic, which has caused millions of dollars in losses to the county’s major mental health facilities and forced many residential treatment programs around the state to shrink for fear of coronavirus spread. Scott Munson, president of the Association of Alcohol and Addiction Providers of Washington State from 2018 to 2020, said more than 90% of the licensed treatment facilities in his organization have been forced to cut capacity — some by as much as 50%.
Munson is executive director of treatment facility Sundown M Ranch in Yakima, and said that in his program, one of the biggest challenges is that once someone has completed treatment, it’s hard to find stable housing for them.
“There’s no question that there is not sufficient mental health services or even recovery services … outside of the jail system,” Bauman said. “But it is not necessarily true that connecting someone with those services would end their homelessness.”
Fortunato said he plans to reintroduce his bill — which is dead on its own — as amendments to other bills, such as one that would exempt disaster-style tent encampments from the state environmental policy act.
“We’re going to propose the amendments, [Democrats] are going to vote them all down. But again, you want to send a message,” Fortunato said.