I have been hearing and reading about the reaction to poverty from some residents in Ballard and Magnolia (if you're on Twitter, follow @heidigroover, @ericacbarnett, @joeveyera, and @seattlish now). Some residents have formed a group they call the "Neighborhood Security Alliance," and last night, they held a meeting at Seattle Pacific University.
The purpose was to...well, I'm not 100% sure of the stated purpose. But then there is what happened. Scott Lindsay from Mayor Ed Murray's office was present to answer questions, and, along with Assistant Chief Steve Wilske, went over data, statistics, and attempted to answer questions. Eric Stoll with the Ballard Chamber of Commerce was also present, but we'll get to him later.
Admittedly, I arrived late. As I came in, someone from the audience was berating the Mayor's office for a described inadequate response to RV campers in Ballard and Magnolia. At one point, someone stated that there were over 150 RV campers in Ballard alone. According to a survey done by SPD, there are actually around 70. Mr. Lindsay did a fantastic job holding his own against a very hostile audience.
Data was a big point of the evening. Mr. Lindsay noted that there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach, stating that each individual experiencing homelessness needs an individualized approach. Mr. Lindsay stated that we don't have good data on how many people are experiencing homelessness (um...One Night Count?), and after one person demanded more studies on "age, ethnicity, mental health status, and where they're from," Mr. Lindsay noted that there isn't good data on those numbers, either (um...but we kind of do).
Concerns were also raised that Sammamish and Mercer Island aren't doing their part. Someone stated that if a person experiencing homelessness put up a tent or parked an RV on Mercer Island, they would be kicked out immediately. (spoiler: that is what the "solution" is that this group is calling for - kick out everyone living in RVs). This despite that Tent Cities are not only in Seattle, or that people living in RVs are just that - people. After the meeting, one person told me that the "solution" is for car campers to go "anywhere but here," or "they can couch surf at your house."
The Safe Lots were brought up, and Chief Wilske noted that just under 50% of people living in RVs have said they will go to one of the lots (which are designed to hold up to 50 vehicles). 27 RVs in Interbay. 70 in Ballard. 75-90 in SODO. Suffice it to say, there is already a math problem.
But the other issue - and the one that really seems to be creating so much ire - is the limitations. The Safe Lots require individuals to not be using drugs or alcohol. Yet one of the biggest complaints about the RVs is IV drug use. For those unaware, IV drug use - whether methamphetamine, heroin, or something else - typically means a highly addictive substance is being used. You don't just stop addiction overnight.
To many at this meeting, addiction appears to be seen as a choice. But I wonder - how many people at this meeting (and anywhere) come home from a bad day at work and have a drink, or a joint? That's self-medicating. Now imagine that bad day being every hour of every day of your life. And then multiply it. You are getting closer to the life of unsheltered persons. Expecting them to just stop, and accusing them of denying services because they cannot, is, frankly, asinine.
We must rethink the barriers we place on access to housing. Housing First means just that. This should be extended to other safe shelter options we are exploring in Seattle. And for those concerned about taxpayer dollars - Housing First is routinely shown to be very cost-effective (albeit politically unpopular - allowing people in extreme poverty to use and receive housing). But it's the right thing to do if we want to actually have a positive impact.
I understand the concern about needles and property crime. There is no doubt that these are real things that happen when people are facing desperation. Trash piling up is less than ideal to look at every day. Everyone wants to feel safe in their neighborhoods - and this includes people experiencing homelessness. But isn't the best way to address all of these needs to provide housing as the first step?
Toward the end of the meeting, after complaining the entire time that there is no law enforcement, Harley Lever (a Bostonite who now lives in Seattle) began rattling off a list of arrests that have been made in the area for crimes ranging from drug dealing to prostitution to an RSO that was homeless. Apparently no law enforcement means arresting people? Well, I began to get annoyed. I was hearing a lot of complaining, but nothing in the way of proposing solutions.
So I asked whether Mr. Lever would support building more emergency and affordable housing immediately in his neighborhood, and more housing generally. He responded that we spend too much on building housing, and that he knows a guy that can recycle old shipping containers into shelter for cheap. So I asked if he was willing to work collaboratively and creatively with providers and the city to move forward and build this housing, and if he would welcome community members experiencing homelessness into his neighborhood. He declined to answer, and the meeting ended.
Afterward, I was approached by a Queen Anne resident who wants the RVs and car campers all towed and kicked out of Seattle. When asked if he was there just to complain, or to help identify solutions, he stated clearly he was not interested in finding solutions - that is someone else's job - he was there to complain. I stated that I am much more interested in solutions, and ones that recognize that people living in tents, RVs, cars, etc. are our neighbors, are people, and are deserving of humane treatment and respect.
Mr. Stoll, the Chamber member I mentioned above, was interested in solutions. I have heard that his remarks last night were an improvement. And I understand why - Mr. Stoll has reached out to Nickelsville; to Interfaith; and to the city and other providers. He is sick of the complaining and yelling, and wants to be part of a solution, so he is working to identify how to bridge the gap, and make that solution happen. More of this, please.
Because it is incredibly important. After this meeting, I joined friends and neighbors to participate in the One Night Count. 4,505 people were found without shelter during the Count - a 19% increase over last year. The time for complaining is over. The time for solutions is now.