Mayor Ed Murray says the homelessness crisis is taking most of his time, and he’s weary of clashes with advocates opposed to evicting people from unauthorized encampments on public property.
Disappointed. Demonized. Determined.
That’s how Seattle Mayor Ed Murray feels almost a year after calling a state of emergency to address the city’s growing homelessness crisis.
The former state lawmaker, who prides himself on a knack for building political coalitions for change, has failed to do that on homelessness, he said in a recent interview.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and homelessness
• Murray takes office after November 2013 election
• Murray convenes task force on unsheltered homelessness
• Task force makes recommendations, including authorized encampments
• Murray proposes opening three authorized encampments, City Council approves them two months later
• Murray proclaims homelessness state of emergency
• Murray and council boost homeless spending to almost $50 million for 2016
• Murray orders opening of safe-parking sites for people living in vehicles
• Five people shot, two fatally, at unauthorized encampment in The Jungle
• One Night Count estimates increase in number of unsheltered people
• Murray says The Jungle should be shut down
• Advocates criticize sweeps of unauthorized encampments
• Consultant tells Murray to stop opening authorized encampments
• Murray delays, scales back plan to shut down The Jungle
• Murray orders creation of San Francisco-style Navigation Center
• Voters approve $290 million replacement housing levy
• Murray convenes task force on sweeps, promises better monitoring
• ACLU and allies propose new protection for campers on public property
• Murray unveils new long-term plan with focus on housing
• Motorist hits, kills man sleeping in tent in greenbelt off Interstate 5
The Seattle Times archives
The mayor partly blames local activists who continue to criticize him for being too hard on people without homes by evicting them repeatedly from camps on public property. They’ve unfairly disparaged him, not knowing that he experienced housing instability himself as a child, and the attacks are weighing on him, he said.
But Murray says he isn’t giving up. The Capitol Hill politician wants to dramatically change how Seattle spends millions of dollars to help people escape the street.
“The one thing I think I offer that no one else has offered is a plan that we’ve spent a lot of time on and that puts us in a situation where we can be successful,” he said.
Pathways Home, the plan Murray released last week, says the city should begin judging programs by the number of people they move into housing and should only fund efforts that perform under that standard.
“He’s trying to do good things. He’s trying to turn it around and make a difference. He wants that to be his legacy,” said Tim Harris, executive director of the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project.
“But he’s not the coalition builder he claims to be. He hasn’t grappled with how polarizing he can be and how his my-way-or-the-highway approach can undermine him in building the alliances he needs to be successful,” Harris said.
Murray looked like a man of action last November when he and King County Executive Dow Constantine proclaimed twin states of emergency over homelessness.
He had won City Council passage of a law allowing the city to help open three authorized tent cities. His predecessor, Mike McGinn, tried something similar, but the council was less receptive.
The proclamation had three aims: provide extra funding and attention to deal with the crisis, bolster public awareness about it, and create a united front in demanding more help from state and federal agencies.
By January, the picture was starting to blur. Murray was under fire from people upset to be living and working near unauthorized homeless camps and from advocates who accused him of using the state of emergency as cover to ramp up sweeps of campers.
Then five people were shot, two fatally, at a camp in The Jungle under Interstate 5. It happened minutes before Murray delivered a live television speech on homelessness; afterward, he rushed to the crime scene. Later that same week, the annual One Night Count estimated another spike in the area’s unsheltered homeless population.
But Murray was still in coalition-building mode, describing his approach — cleaning up the city with compassion — as a “middle way” and hoping it would resonate.
The mayor now seems somewhat worn down. The American Civil Liberties Union and its allies are trying to bypass Murray by going straight to the council with a proposal to restrict sweeps of some unauthorized camps, and the council is listening.
People dealing with camps in the neighborhoods, meanwhile, have kept beating the drum for cleanups. They enlisted help from an out-of-town Republican last week, as state Sen. Mark Miloscia of Federal Way vowed to block the ACLU proposal.
And they have a new anthem, courtesy of a KIRO Radio listener. “I see piles of trash, tarps of blue, up and down I-5, in plain view, and I think to myself, welcome to Ed Murray’s world,” the song goes, to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”
Sodo business owner Kima Yandell doesn’t believe homeless campers should be run out of town, though some of her neighbors do, she said.
But Yandell, who runs the steel studs and dry wall contractor Katwall, is frustrated with the city’s apparent inability to keep Sodo clean and safe, she said.
“I don’t want to get into the question of whether people have the right to camp,” she said. “But many businesses are talking about leaving when their leases are up.”
When asked to evaluate his emergency effort, Murray was silent for several beats.
Then he said, “Except for getting additional shelter beds up, it’s not going well.”
“Seattle food fight”
Homelessness isn’t just a Seattle problem — that’s one of Murray’s mantras. Portland is struggling, and San Francisco, and Bellingham. Rising rents, income inequality, scarce help for mental illness and the heroin epidemic are reasons why.
The extra funding he and the council allocated, bringing spending on homelessness to almost $50 million this year, was never going to solve the problem. From the beginning, the mayor argued the city needs help from Olympia and Washington, D.C.
Some additional state and federal money has reached Seattle, and Murray has met with other West Coast mayors, but the national movement he hoped to lead from his perch in the Emerald City hasn’t materialized. Whose fault? Not mine, Murray said.
“I have a little background in building coalitions around things people used to fight over,” he said, mentioning his leadership on legalizing same-sex marriage. “But the response (from activists) has been to play a tired, old ideological game where the mayor is doing bad things to the homeless and just give us more money.”
He may have been thinking about Real Change encouraging readers of its street newspaper to wear Ed Murray masks and carry brooms with them at the Fremont Solstice Parade to protest the encampment sweeps.
“We should be pushed by advocates,” Murray added. “That’s their role. But we’ve gone to a level of demonization that’s just not constructive, not helpful.”
The mayor concluded, “I can’t imagine why our congressional delegation and our legislative delegation would want to step into a Seattle food fight.”
Not surprisingly, Real Change’s Harris sees things differently. “I’ll play the blame game here, too,” was his rejoinder. The advocates warned the mayor against intensifying the sweeps after his emergency proclamation, according to Harris.
“I told him, ‘If you go down this road and start escalating the sweeps, you’re going to squander the goodwill you have with the advocacy community.’ His response was to throw a tantrum and start talking about how we can name as many encampments after him as we want but he’s going to go ahead and do what he thinks needs to be done.”
Murray has strong emotions around homelessness. That was on display last Monday when he spoke from an I-5 offramp where a motorist had struck and killed a camper.
When interviewed days earlier, the mayor had blasted his critics for giving up on the Legislature and Congress. Faced with tragedy, Murray sounded ready to surrender.
“The plan of course has been that we would expect help. That’s not coming,” he said, suggesting the council discuss a new Seattle tax to combat homelessness.
The crisis is eating away at him, Murray said.
“These discussions have been overwhelmingly difficult for me … for my very small staff, where we now spend most of our time on homelessness,” he said. “At times, I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing.”
The mayor then shared a piece of his past: He remembers being very young when, “My father’s employment and my mother’s health gave out … Next thing I know, I’m living with my aunts and uncles and my sisters are living at the Good Shepherd Home.”
He continued, “By the time I was 16, my family had moved to 10 different homes. By the time I was in sixth grade, I’d been to six different schools. This issue is so difficult for me because I know what housing instability means.”
The good news: The emphasis on housing in Murray’s Pathways Home plan is something he, Harris and Yandell all agree on. The bad news: Moving more people off the street requires a lot more housing.
Voters recently approved a larger replacement housing levy, and Murray is trying to make developers help provide low-cost housing in exchange for upzones. But the mayor is worried about his battles with activists dragging on.
“We continue to have the wrong debate, which is about encampments and shelters,” he said.
Nonetheless, Murray wants to keep pushing and plans to run for re-election next year.
“I’d like to have more time,” he said, making a prediction about 2017 and homelessness. “You know, I think this will be the dominant issue.”
That seems like a safe bet.