For folks not under a rock in Seattle, you all know that something that has become a major issue this year is encampment sweeps. Now, some people like to refer to these as "cleanups," but the sentiment is the same: people who are homeless are dirty and need to be swept (or "cleaned") out of the space in which they reside.
In my experience, there are four prongs to this conversation. The first: should the city engage in moving people in unsanctioned tent encampments on public land? The second: what should be the impetus for such a move? Third: what, if any, guaranteed offers for services or safe shelter should be made? And fourth: what barriers should there be for that shelter.
Before diving in, a quick note about motives and values. Too often, I fear we see what we believe the end result of a position from someone else would be, and assume they are taking their position to maliciously achieve that end result. Looking a little closer, however, that is often not the case. Yes, Safe Seattle is full of horrible people whose actions show their motives are impure. But someone who doesn't want their kid passing by discarded needles isn't "NIMBY" - it's parenting. People want to feel safe, and people want their families to feel safe. Knee-jerk reactions with accusations can stifle opportunities to have dialogue that is helpful. The clearest example of this that I have is my interaction with Kemra Norsworthy, which ended very well because instead of discounting concerns, I listened, she listened, and we both were able to learn.
Now - Should the city engage in moving people in unsanctioned tent encampments on public land? This may come as a shock to many, but...yes, the city should. There are many caveats to this that tie into the following prongs, but ultimately public spaces are just that: public. Denying the use of certain public spaces to any members of the public is something I have a hard time grasping onto.
There is a cost consideration: maintaining parks and sidewalks isn't cheap, and keeping greenbelt trees healthy is a lot of work. The long term damage in particular to parks and play fields from unsanctioned encampments can be significant, in particular wherein they are not equipped for people living.
But there is also a safety consideration. I haven't heard any reports of people stepping on a used needle, or a kid falling on one during a soccer match, so I'm not going to play into that set of "what ifs". But for folks living without shelter, there is a risk of disease from rodents and lack of hygienic facilities, and in some of our hilly forests, death from mudslide. (it happens). People living without shelter are also at greater risk for violence against them from housed folks willing to take advantage of someone's situation. People can be horrible, after all.
How the city engages in this is the part that gets most tricky. More on that later. Also tricky: Why.
The impetus for action on encampments calls into question the priorities of the city, and how the city engages and interacts with housed community members. With the proposal for three sanctioned encampments, the city tried. The administration held public comment periods and information sessions, and it got ugly. Personally, I attended one, and saw an interesting mix of people who were advocates for safe shelter, people who were actually trying to learn, and what I can refer to only as "assholes."
In speaking with community members, I heard from many their concerns - which were valid - that they were hoping to have addressed, or learn more about. In many of them, I saw frustration with the way some folks were behaving. Taking the microphone to give a speech rather than ask a question, booing people from other communities that had hosted tent cities, and booing people who were telling their story of how a tent city was the first step to housing. So I can definitely attest to one thing: it's hard to get good information into the public without people (a la Safe Seattle) coming in and shitting on the hard work. In fact, this was part of what led to the homelessness panels that I participated in throughout 2016 - reminding people that support emergency options that they need to show up to meetings, as well as the great work many do to help set up encampments and Tiny House Villages (THVs)
So when we hear that sweeps will be conducted based on a reporting mechanism, I am admittedly given pause. There are people in our city who literally get giddy when given an opportunity to harass folks experiencing homelessness. Folks who seem to enjoy keeping the extremely poor just that, and who want to do everything they can to push them as far away from wealthy white folks as possible. At the same time, there should be a mechanism wherein a potentially dangerous situation can be assessed, and determinations on whether to make a move made. Ideally in collaboration with the folks in an encampment. And that must be the starting point to the conversation: is this situation creating a hazardous situation for the folks in the encampment, or is it simply an "eyesore." If there isn't a hazard, then I posit it would be a better use of resources to do...pretty much anything else (while maintaining contact and providing trash cans and food for the folks in the camp, and human services support until there is a safe place for folks to go).
And that gets into an area that creates controversy: what, if any, should the guaranteed services be. During a council meeting on sweeps, this came up (sort of). When asked by now-Mayor Tim Burgess whether the services being offered to folks in unsanctioned camps actually existed, then-public safety adviser to the Mayor Scott Lindsay admitted that often times they did not.
Folks who have stable shelter and good jobs and health insurance love to ask "Well, why don't they just take services!" If the services suck, or your history is that, when offered, the services magically disappear, it's understandable that someone would be less than willing to continually trust people offering services. Getting people's hopes up only to crush them again has a real impact. Putting someone in a hotel room or a short-term living situation, but not providing long-term stable assistance, means they're likely to end up back in a tent, and that creates multiple disruptions. Plus the commitment that is often required to maintain services - even for a short while - can be exhausting (appointments with case workers for food, for housing, for health care, counselors, etc.).
There is a question about whether the city should identify a "right to safe shelter." While the city should operate under a value-set that includes all people deserving a safe place to sleep tonight, from a legal perspective, I'm not sure it would be advisable to codify this as a "right." Then you get into definitions, funding for that safe shelter, and liability when it cannot be provided. This could then cut into funding for other programs - recreation programs at community centers for low-income families, funding for safe pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, funding for free lunches for kids during the summer, in-home support services, etc. - that serve to prevent more families from falling into homelessness, or otherwise provide an increased quality of life that otherwise might not be affordable.
So what instead can and/or should we do? This is where the impetus meets the action. Where sweeps have been a most-colossal failure has been the lack of a place for people to go. As a rule, the city should not be telling people "You can't be here" without providing them somewhere to go. As Council Member Sally Bagshaw has pointed out: people need a place to sleep tonight or today. People need a place to store their belongings. People need a place where they feel safe. If we really want to address the crisis, the city has a responsibility to rebuild trust. A big part of that is meaning what we say, and being better at how we implement policies.
Part of the larger picture does, frankly, include more THVs throughout the city, allowing groups to move together. But also a willingness to identify a space that is safer and nearby, and providing transportation assistance to it, when an unsanctioned camp is, upon inspection, a hazard for all community members. The existing system of kicking people out of one place without providing somewhere safe to go has simply led to groups moving from one site to another to another.
Then there is the question about barriers. This is another controversial issue: should people experiencing addiction be allowed to drink or use drugs while in a sanctioned camp or in a taxpayer funded supportive housing project? I would posit both yes and no.
Quickly on low-barrier options more broadly: major problems with traditional shelter systems include religious observance requirements (which, frankly, should preclude them from any government funding), inability to work with LGBTQ and gender nonconforming community members, splitting up of couples, not allowing pets, and the limited hours make them unattractive to many. The crowding and method by which shelter is provided make them completely unworkable for many. We've allowed emergency shelter to become long-term shelter thanks to a lack of permanent housing being built, and that is a failure on us as a society.
But "wet" shelter is something different completely. The idea being that meeting people where they are instead of expecting them to meet our (very high standards) for where they should be to receive services seems like a no-brainer to me. Yet for some, the idea of spending any taxpayer dollars on permanent and safe shelter for someone who is drinking in the facility is a big no-no. On this, I do have to call bullshit. There is evidence that shows this type of shelter saves lives, that people are more likely to access treatment services if we address their housing first, and that the cost to taxpayers is actually much lower due to fewer ambulance trips and hospital stays. In Canada, there's a housing first building that provides low-ABV beer to residents who are chronic alcoholics, and this has shown to decrease the amount spent by the facility on food and basic needs because folks spend their income on food and necessities rather than alcohol, and by providing a low-ABV version, the residents are less inebriated and more alert and engaged than they might otherwise be.
The flipside: there are also folks who are trying to remain clean and sober while experiencing homelessness, or transitioning to permanent housing. These folks need safe places to be sober, as well. Evidence also shows that folks who are aiming to remain clean and sober do so best when they are not around drugs and alcohol.
There is a balance, and there can and should be ample room for both people with chronic addiction, people looking to maintain their recovery, and folks in between.
With the city having a conversation on our sweeps policy, I am admittedly most hopeful that we look at it holistically. That all of our politicians acknowledge that all members of our community deserve and need safe public spaces, but also everyone needs and deserves a safe place to sleep and store their belongings. Moving people without providing a safe alternative site to be is less than humane, and our city can and should do better.
Ultimately, expecting people to live in tents and tiny houses is fucked up. It is evidence of our failures to provide adequate permanent housing, or address the affordability crisis before it began. We need to provide more permanent housing for folks, and give people who need help more reason to trust that it will come, it will be sufficient, and it will last a sufficient amount of time - even if that means forever.
We also need to review what that looks like, and work with providers and folks experiencing homelessness on better strategies. That politicians appear more inclined to learn and identify actionable ideas focused on housing rather than aesthetics is a breath of fresh air, and I am hopeful it is one that will continue.