The homelessness scourge is finally being treated like a full-fledged emergency, as if it were a natural disaster like an earthquake. In some cities anyway.
Does a city’s one-note politics contribute to the homelessness problem? A leader last week refreshingly raised that thorny issue — and said it was time for a dramatic change.
“We have moved as a city from a position of compassion to enabling street behavior,” the mayor said.
“We have offered services time and time again and gotten many off the street, but there is a resistant population that remains, and their tents have to go.
“Enough is enough,” the mayor said.
Oh sorry, that wasn’t in Seattle. That bracing self-analysis came from the mayor of San Francisco, speaking to the newspaper there. Yes, San Francisco — Seattle’s big brother in everything from lavish housing prices to liberal policy experimentation — has suddenly decided to get more aggressive on unsanctioned homeless encampments.
Sorry for the confusion. What I meant to highlight was this:
“We are seizing this moment,” the mayor said, in announcing an innovative plan to funnel homeless-encampment cleanup money to every neighborhood that also accepts 100 beds of emergency shelter.
Shoot, my bad, that wasn’t here either, but in Los Angeles. The mayor there just declared a “shelter crisis,” to ease restrictions that now stall the quick setup of temporary shelter. But he tied it directly to encampment cleanup — the theory being, as with the San Francisco mayor, that there has to be enforcement along with the compassion.
I have another example — from San Diego, see below — but you get the idea. Homelessness is a crisis up and down the West Coast. But it sure feels like there’s more political urgency, and experimentation, elsewhere.
Here, our City Council is debating a $75 million annual tax on business, with most of the money going to build affordable housing. That housing is vitally needed, but even under a rosy scenario the units wouldn’t start coming on line for three years or so.
In San Diego, this gap between the long-term answer (more housing) and the immediate crisis (people living in Third World squalor) turned deadly. The city had a hepatitis A outbreak that killed 20 people, mostly among the street homeless exposed to fecal contamination. That, in turn, prompted dramatic emergency action.
“Do we just leave those people on the street for five years, seven years, 10 years waiting for housing to be built?”
That’s a quote from a Bloomberg article last month with the headline “San Diego unveils unorthodox homelessness solution.” The idea was to act as if the city had been hit by an earthquake or other natural disaster. So in addition to a mass vaccination program, San Diego put up three giant, insulated FEMA-like tents — complete with HVAC, eating areas and round-the-clock security.
“In appearance, it evokes a military installation or a refugee camp,” the article says. “(One) industrial-sized tent holds 324 people in neatly spaced, numbered bunks. People can bring their pets, and 70 dogs also live in the shelter. It offers a bed and services — from health care to employment assistance to showers and laundry — while people wait for a place of their own.”
Cost for the tents was just $1.5 million, raised by the private sector. The city pays to run them. Bottom line: Since December, San Diego has filled 700 bunk beds with people moved off the streets. That’s nearly twice as many shelter beds as Seattle is proposing to create in five years under its new tax plan.
How did San Diego get the political will to go so much faster?
“Hepatitis A actually forced the issue,” a San Diego restaurant owner explained to NBC News.
Seattle, we’re behind. These other cities have hardly solved homelessness. But the urgency is at least there.
How about we put up some industrial-sized tents down at, say, the vacant Terminal 5? Then sweep the unsanctioned encampments, a la San Francisco and San Diego, and say: You can’t stay here, under this bridge or on this sidewalk. But you can stay over there, in that giant, and clean, tent barracks.
Even San Francisco now is grappling with whether its compassion, its civic instinct to let the homeless camp where they wish, went too far. We eventually copy San Francisco on everything, it seems, so we might as well get started on this one.