The political heat is on Seattle Mayor Ed Murray as he tries to balance priorities in a city with a homelessness crisis that doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
Ed Murray was in hot water.
The Seattle mayor had proclaimed a state of emergency in November to address the homelessness deluge he said was drowning the region. He had called for federal and state assistance, but nearly three months later, none was on the way.
The heat was coming from residents of neighborhoods sprouting unsightly, unsafe and unauthorized camps. Heat was coming, too, from homeless advocates upset about the mayor closing camps without providing shelter and services to all who were displaced.
Murray’s critics screamed during community meetings, vented on Facebook, sneered on Twitter. More and more people struggled on the streets.
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So Murray went on a round of interviews and delivered a prime-time televised speech in soaring style on Tuesday, trying to explain his approach and cool things down.
But minutes before he began, five people were shot, two fatally, in the nightmarish camp along Interstate 5 known as The Jungle. The news reached Murray just as he stopped speaking. He rushed to the scene.
The people killed weren’t homeless, friends and relatives have said, and their killers may not have been, either. But the mayor connected the shooting to homelessness.
“I can’t help but wonder, did I act too late?” the mayor told reporters. “That’s my reaction. Maybe I should have issued the state of emergency months earlier.”
After months of trying to strike a balance between taking charge and seeking help, between cleanups and compassion, Murray had a tragedy on his hands that could add to people’s fears.
Now the hot water is boiling and the city is looking to Murray to solve a problem that can seem unsolvable.
“This is a difficult situation,” he said in an interview Thursday. “This was difficult for my predecessors, and homelessness has exploded in the last several years. When I chat with mayors across the country, you see (homelessness) is tough for them, too.”
Former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, who ran against Murray in 2013, said he empathizes with the mayor. He recalls feeling hemmed-in while on the council.
“You experience pressure from multiple sides,” Steinbrueck said. “You’re trying to strengthen supports, reform the delivery of services. But the gains are never enough and some people are going to complain you’re showing too much compassion.”
Murray calls his approach a “middle way.” He has gone further than previous mayors in some respects — opening authorized tent cities on public property as an alternative for campers and ordering safe-parking lots for people living in vehicles.
He and the City Council budgeted a record amount of almost $50 million for homeless services this year, adding beds to Seattle’s shelter system and more outreach. The emergency proclamation has brought more civic attention to bear on homelessness.
But Murray has also ramped up closures of unauthorized camps, sometimes without notice, even though there aren’t beds for everyone displaced.
“I really appreciate what the mayor is trying to do,” Steinbrueck said, but making the point that homelessness is related to other problems — growing inequality nationwide, inadequate state mental-health services — over which Murray has scant control.
Homelessness and discontent about homelessness have surged in New York City under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who won election in the same progressive wave as Murray. Likewise, Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco has presided over a boom in street camping.
But arguing, as Murray has, that Seattle will remain under water until Olympia and Washington, D.C., step in, raises the question: How will he lead in the meantime?
De Blasio last month unveiled a $2.6 billion supportive-housing plan, then ordered outreach workers to canvas every block in Lower Manhattan daily. Lee has opened a one-stop Navigation Center where homeless people stay and connect with services.
“This is a precarious situation for a mayor to be in. Ed has taken a bold stand. He’s elevated the issue,” Steinbrueck said. “But you can’t just make protestations and expect the federal government to swoop right in. That takes a lot of work and lobbying.”
Besides, not everyone is as understanding as Steinbrueck. Political consultant Crystal Fincher said Murray, a longtime state legislator, is still learning to govern from the seventh floor of City Hall. The mayor is known as a consensus builder, not a technocrat.
“There are different challenges as a legislator versus an executive,” Fincher said. “The buck stops with him now. Declaring an emergency, requesting money isn’t action. Talking about a problem isn’t addressing it. That’s why some people are frustrated.”
The mayor admits assistance on homelessness from a polarized state Legislature and a broken U.S. Congress won’t be coming to Seattle anytime soon.
“Yes, I’m worried,” he said. “This isn’t a great period in our country’s political history.”
But Murray is hopeful about mental-health reforms proposed by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and homelessness funds in President Obama’s next budget.
East Coast mayors may soon convene a summit on homelessness like the huddle Murray and other West Coast mayors held in Portland last month, Murray said.
“This is how movements begin,” he said, trying his best to strike an optimistic tone.
Murray insists he is not trying to shift blame but only context by pointing out that other cities are struggling and by arguing Seattle can’t go it alone.
“Leaders have different approaches to crises like this one, and some separate themselves from the issue. That’s not my approach,” the mayor said. “Part of leadership is bringing people along, and to do that you need to communicate with them about what you want to do.”
The balancing act
Murray said he believes his “middle way” message is starting to resonate. Opposition to authorized tent cities in Ballard and Interbayhas died down since they opened.
“We’re starting to get through to the city that this isn’t an either/or situation — that we need a combination of outreach and services and fixing the system and law enforcement,” Murray said. “I think people are hearing me. I think they’re getting it.”
Bolstering that view somewhat are voices such as Mike Stewart, of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce, and Tim Harris, of the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project.
Stewart, among those who ripped Murray for siting an authorized camp on Market Street, said businesspeople are still angry about eroded public safety and order.
“But it seems like the mayor has finally realized we need a comprehensive approach,” said Stewart, whose group is now working with churches and advocates.
In his speech, Murray lashed out at advocates for the homeless, calling their criticism of his cleanups outrageous. But Harris said the mayor is nonetheless close to a breakthrough.
“I’m a cheerleader for Ed,” Harris said. “With the sanctioned tent cities and RV lots, he’s expanded survival resources in a relatively inexpensive way. He only gets into trouble with advocates when he stops listening to people who want him to succeed.”
The balancing act will go on, however. To make peace with the advocates, Murray may need to concede ground on cleanups, which could anger other constituents.
Sending mixed messages is how Murray has ended up in trouble, Fincher said.
“He wants to walk that line, but when you don’t take clear stances on some issues, you’re setting people up to feel betrayed,” said the onetime consultant to the mayor Murray unseated, Mike McGinn.
The mayor certainly hasn’t won over Lisa Sawyer, 29, who doesn’t have a home.
Sawyer has lost property in cleanups, which she calls sweeps. “There must be a better way” that puts people first, she contended, saying she feels unwelcome in the city where she grew up.
Murray has said the city can’t afford to spend more on homelessness without making unacceptable trade-offs, a position that assumes his budget is without fat.
The heat grew again Friday as the annual One Night Count of people without shelter showed another increase. Collin Jevne, a social worker who took part in the count, described what Murray is up against: “People are upset because there seems to be no simple solution. They don’t have any control, so they’re throwing tantrums.”
Murray is resolved. “My entire political life has been dealing with controversial issues. God help us, I wish I wasn’t working on this issue, but I’m up for the challenge.”