The other day, two political candidates really got into it during a debate about one of the most contentious local issues, homelessness.
One of the candidates asked people to think back to what images they had of the city when they first arrived.
“Did you envision a town where you drive down the street and see drunks passed out in the middle of the day, in front of the county courthouse?” he said. “And drug users laying passed out here and there?
“Did you envision living in a place where shoplifters pretty much run rampant … where people use our public property as their personal bathrooms where they urinate and defecate anywhere and anytime, 24 hours a day?”
It went on like that, but I’m going to interrupt to note that this wasn’t in Seattle. It took place this past week in Port Angeles — a town of just 20,000, a “smallish seaside-meets-mountain town” out on the Olympic peninsula.
What the city council candidate, a man named John Procter, said next is what really drew my attention.
“I don’t know where these people come from,” he speculated about the tent encampments. “I think a lot of these people come from Seattle … they come here for the free stuff.”
I’m bringing this to a wider attention for two reasons. One is that it’s not just Seattle that’s struggling with a rise in street homelessness. It’s important that Seattleites know this — the crisis we’re experiencing here is at a terrible scale, but it isn’t unique. It isn’t confined even to the big urban centers.
The other is this notion that Port Angeles’ homeless population came from Seattle. The rap on Seattle for decades is that we’re “Freeattle,” luring in the poor and the transients from around the West. Now we’re supposedly exporting them, too?
“It’s a consistent story line about the homeless — that they’re always from somewhere else,” says Lacey Fry, of Port Angeles, who organizes the town’s annual “point-in-time” count of people living on the streets.
This upcoming week I’m moderating a debate about homelessness in Seattle (more on that in a minute), and one of the first questions submitted by a Seattle resident was this:
“Folks come from out of town and pitch their tents, because other cities don’t allow them to do so. Why are we not asking for proof of residency in our state or city before providing housing for all?”
So we think they’re coming from over there. And over there they think they’re coming from here.
In Port Angeles, Fry said this year volunteers counted 231 people who were homeless in and around Port Angeles during a couple nights in January. That includes a record 148 living “unsheltered,” meaning in tents or doorways or cars, rather than in an official shelter.
Social workers asked them where they had been living when they became homeless. Two answered “Seattle,” one “Bremerton.” The rest, Frey says, said they were “from Sequim or Quilcene or Port Angeles or Neah Bay or other towns around here.”
The last time King County asked the same question, in 2019, 84% said they had been living in the county at the time they became homeless. Eleven percent said they came from another county (Pierce and Snohomish were the top two), while 5% came from out of state.
Now I’ve interviewed folks holed up under bridges in downtown Seattle who said they moved here for the legal weed, or because we have a rep for letting people camp wherever they want. It definitely happens. None of this is to say that communities like ours shouldn’t have basic standards about unauthorized encampments — about trash or drugs or where you can camp, or any of the other issues that arise alongside chronic street homelessness.
It is to say, though, that one reason we struggle so much to deal with this civic emergency is the “stranger” phenomenon. It’s understandable in one sense — you see someone living in inhuman conditions, an instinct is to conclude that they’re foreign to you and me. They’re not of this place. They’re from Othertown.
In Port Angeles, that’s Seattle. I don’t know what Port Angeles is going to do. They could probably just run the couple hundred homeless out of town if they wanted to — which is basically what that one city council candidate was advocating.
Seattle, at last count, had 4,400 in its shelter network, and another 3,700 out on the streets or in parks or greenbelts. It would be a lot tougher for us to make this somebody else’s problem.
It’s in that spirit that a community group in Belltown has convened a forum on Seattle’s homelessness crisis at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 24. I’m moderating it.
The debate is centered on a charter amendment being proposed for Seattle’s ballot this fall, Measure 29, that seeks to stand up 2,000 units of shelter while aiming to keep public spaces free of encampments. Belltown United has invited two panelists who are against the amendment (former Seattle city attorney Mark Sidran and Real Change’s Tiffani McCoy), and two who are for it (the Public Defender Association’s Lisa Daugaard and Downtown Seattle Association’s Jon Scholes).
It’s a virtual event — you can register to see it, and submit your questions to the panelists in advance, at belltownunited.org.
I don’t know if this charter amendment is the right answer. But I do think it’s crucial that Seattle, and places like Port Angeles, own the problem. The tragedy, the blame, and hopefully the solutions, all live here. Not off in Othertown.