Until a few years ago, Christi Muoneke didn’t pay much attention to Seattle politics. “I couldn’t even tell you who my council member was,” she said.
That changed when the streetsides around her Beacon Hill home were lined with tents and vehicles occupied by homeless people.
Around the same time, Muoneke and her family had bikes stolen and cars broken into, she says. Her mother-in-law stopped taking walks. Trash piled up in the traffic circle on their corner. Repeated calls to the police about the camping made no lasting impact.
“I’m pretty sure 99% of people in Seattle feel compassion for the homeless. We don’t think they should be thrown into the ocean,” she said. “My frustration is that so many decisions in Seattle today are driven by ideology rather than the desire to get results.”
Not every voter views this year’s City Council elections as a chance to express outrage about street homelessness and crime, and not every voter who views them that way will come to the same conclusion. Though camping can be conflated with crime, homeless people are often victims rather than perpetrators.
But residents with angst about such issues are motivated and many are older homeowners likely to vote. They’ll help decide the council’s seven district races.
Like Muoneke, some want City Hall to deal more assertively with the lawbreakers who make up a small percentage of the homeless population and redirect resources from emergency services to supportive housing. Others note arrests can exacerbate homelessness and say Seattle must raise taxes on large corporations to address the crisis. Last year, an independent report said the region’s annual spending must double to more than $400 million to close a 14,000-unit housing gap.
A tech worker says his progressive ideals are being tested by bureaucrats struggling to keep Ballard clean, while a Northgate chaplain is tempering concerns about his family’s safety with the empathy he brings to his ministry. The chaplain, Justin Almeida, says people who own homes should keep their grievances in perspective.
“They say Seattle is dying,” Almeida said, referring to a KOMO-TV documentary that recently went viral. “But I don’t see tech guys dying at Harborview (Medical Center) of malnutrition and exposure. The people who are dying are the people on the margins.”
It was 2015 when local leaders proclaimed a state of emergency around homelessness, and voters are grappling with the reality that conditions remain bad. Large majorities of voters want the city to invest in more housing, as well as mental-health and drug treatment, according to a recent Seattle Times poll. At the same time, more than half would support a zero-tolerance policy toward camping in parks and public places, and 68% lack trust in City Hall.
A “single-issue voter”
Muoneke is all in. The tech-industry lawyer is attending forums, donating money, posting on Facebook and organizing with the advocacy group Speak Out Seattle, which has opposed looser camping rules.
The 55-year-old mother of two says she may vote for Ari Hoffman, a conservative candidate who has appeared on Fox News and NRA TV. In District 2, which encompasses South Seattle, she also likes Phyllis Porter, a vocational educator and biking advocate. Incumbent Bruce Harrell isn’t running, so the race is wide open.
Last year, Muoneke and her family sold their house and moved to a more secluded neighborhood, near Genesee Park, where they leave their car doors unlocked and see no RVs. The homelessness crisis can be hard to avoid, however. Around that time, the city quietly made plans to allow overnight car camping at Genesee. For Muoneke, that was the last straw.
“I’m a Democrat. I used to consider myself liberal,” she said. “But I’m a single-issue voter this time around.”
The area’s most recent one-night homeless count tallied a decrease in people living outside. Mayor Jenny Durkan has sped up removals of unsanctioned encampments in the past year, drawing criticism from service providers who say making vulnerable people move around solves nothing. More tents showed up around Muoneke’s old house in 2016 when the city swept the Interstate 5 encampments known as “The Jungle.”
Racial disparities persist, with both Native Americans and African Americans making up disproportionately high percentages of the homeless population.
For her part, Muoneke is still learning about what Seattle is doing. She wants to see people housed, and the city already is helping to underwrite about 1,000 new low-income apartments each year. The Genesee Park lot, shelved due to neighborhood opposition, would have given some car campers an alternative to streets like those around her old home.
Yet Muoneke distrusts City Hall. Seattle’s sanctioned encampments have yielded mixed results. Despite spending increases, camping has continued. For the new car-camping lot, the city considered several sites in South Seattle, Muoneke notes, suggesting authorities expected less political pushback there.
The Nigerian immigrant also is bothered by the shaming tone she says some social-justice advocates adopt. She “rants every day about Trump” on Facebook, has served on the boards of nonprofits and says her ideas are mainstream. It’s socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant who’s out of step, she says.
“I’m not anti-homeless. I’m just anti-people who commit crimes and are given a pass because they’re homeless,” she said, making a claim about enforcement that Seattle authorities strenuously deny, with homeless people booked into King County jails more than 16,100 times in 2017. “Everybody is entitled to safety and security. All humans want that.”
Livability in Ballard
Austin Ruf eagerly calls himself an environmentalist and an urbanist. He wants denser housing. He can’t understand why anyone would object to having bike lanes built near them. He’s an unabashed fan of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the democratic socialist from New York who’s become a progressive star.
“Give me a local version of AOC, I’ll vote for them,” says Ruf, 41, a tech-company program manager who lives in Ballard with his wife and three young daughters.
But when he ponders the council elections, issues like the Green New Deal and Seattle’s failure to follow through on its plans to expand bike lanes aren’t necessarily top of mind.
Instead, Ruf thinks about the Ballard Commons spray park just a few blocks from his house. Sometimes there are makeshift encampments there. Sometimes there’s broken glass or vomit. When a portable toilet caught fire a couple years ago, its melted carcass lingered for weeks.
Ruf uses the city’s Find it, Fix it app to report problems, but more often than not, he says, the requests are closed a few days later with the problems unresolved. Rather than walking their three daughters down to the spray park in the summer, Ruf and his wife load them in the car and drive to a park in another neighborhood.
“I’m an environmentalist,” Ruf said. “God that’s frustrating, that’s so frustrating.”
Crime rates are up about 4% in Ruf’s neighborhood since 2010. But he’s quick to acknowledge that the rates today are still much lower than in the 1980s and early 1990s.
He’s irked, however, by what he sees as a tendency to dismiss neighborhood concerns about livability.
In 2010, “violent crime and property crime start to tick back up,” Ruf says. “Is that the end of the world? No, but if we’re trending in the wrong direction, it’s OK to talk about.”
Ruf is undecided on who he’ll back to replace Councilmember Mike O’Brien in District 6, which includes Fremont and Green Lake in addition to Ballard. O’Brien chose not to seek reelection after private polling reportedly showed his favorability under water.
Ruf is looking less for progressive bona fides than for civility, a focus on data and a willingness to engage with constituents, he says. He wasn’t satisfied with O’Brien’s office when he complained about tents and trash.
Ballard has added more housing since 2015 than any other outer Seattle neighborhood and its challenges speak to what other areas could encounter as they also grow.
“People say that Ballard is just a bunch of pearl-clutching NIMBYs; I’m like wait a second,” he said. “Maybe we should listen to some of the concerns that people are bringing there.”
A chaplain for homeless people
It was a dream come true for Justin Almeida and his wife when they managed to buy a little house in Northgate, steps from bus stops and a supermarket next to Victory Creek Park. They could walk to buy groceries and there was a slide in the park for their son.
But as he grew, they steered him away. People were sleeping, taking drugs and relieving themselves there, Almeida says. The parks department eventually bulldozed the play structure, citing code-compliance, environmental and safety issues. “There were needles inside,” he said. “The city couldn’t keep it clean.”
Exasperation creeps into Almeida’s voice when he points out where the slide used to be. Then he remembers the people he serves. Almeida is a chaplain at Harborview Medical Center, where he ministers to homeless people who have no one else, sometimes standing vigil when they pass away.
The 42-year-old will be thinking about the park and about Harborview when he mails his ballot this summer in District 5, which covers North Seattle. He hopes to vote for someone who understands why voters are angry and why anger won’t solve their problems.
“People are seeking refuge and shelter,” he said, looking around the park. “It makes sense for them to hang out here.”
Almeida empathizes with voters rattled about property crime and street camping. His house and car have been broken into. Trash and tents crowd the slopes below a bridge in his neighborhood, and a shooting happened recently nearby.
But his time at Harborview helps him navigate his mixed emotions. Ducking under the bridge last month, he greeted campers warmly, asking their permission to climb by. Though some homeless people commit crimes, so do housed people, he notes.
“My son notices when someone is having a manic attack or when they’re shooting up. He wants to know why,” Almeid said. “We try to have honest conversations. Maybe they’re hurting. They’re trying to escape.”
When Almeida once joined a conversation the Facebook page Safe Seattle, he was hoping to connect with other perturbed residents about steps they could take together. What he saw instead made him worry about this year’s elections.
“People posting photos of encampments and people on the streets,” Almeida said. “Dehumanizing people. This narrative that we need more police. That we need to incarcerate people … It was too toxic.”
Perhaps because Almeida works with vulnerable people, he describes local politics in social-work terms — wealth rubbing up against misery has damaged Seattle’s soul and caused people to lash out, sometimes through social media like NextDoor.
“This city is experiencing a collective trauma,” he said.
Almeida is no policy expert, but he says homeless people need more assistance and believes Seattle authorities are trying hard. To make up for the Victory Creek Park play structure, the city is building a new play area at another Northgate park.
“When people are scared and angry, they tend to elect law-and-order candidates and those candidates tend to devolve into fascism,” he said. “I want a candidate with balance.”
He liked how incumbent Councilmember Debora Juarez ran a recent town hall, with zero tolerance for nasty comments. Almeida is checking out other candidates, too, wondering how they would deal with the pressure.
“God help whoever wins,” he said.