Homelessness and Honesty
There are a lot of great ideas that have been coming out of the Mayoral race this year. I say that, because many of them are, frankly, recycled from 2015. ORCA cards for all students? That was a big thing Rob Johnson focused on in D4. Expanding self-governed Tiny House Villages in response to immediate needs - Sally Bagshaw, D7. Prioritizing restorative justice as part of our criminal justice spending? Hello Tammy Morales D2. Fund community college for all Seattle students? That was the centerpiece of my education policy (I also included funding and partnering with Labor for expanded pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship opportunities - not all higher education is college).
That many of these ideas have permeated into the Mayoral campaign as major themes and talking points tells me that 2015 really was the best crop of candidates Seattle has had for public office (with an outlier here and there). And not just because so many had so many good ideas, but because most of the winners incorporated many of those good ideas into their work on City Council. I continue to be a believer that where a good idea comes from doesn't matter. That it exists and is worth trying is much more important. This is a trait I like to see in elected officials.
I also am a fan of honesty. There is little that is more obnoxious to me than politicians blatantly lying or distorting things in order to get a political "win". This is especially true when we, as a city, are identifying ways to address immediate needs of our neighbors experiencing homelessness, while continuing to process our way to a solution (hint: provide housing!)
One of the issues that surfaced early on in my 2015 campaign were RV campers along Northlake Ave. in Wallingford. The folks at Dunn Lumber were not at all impressed, and there was concern - quite valid - about human waste, needles, and trash piling up on this road. Catherine Weatbrook (then running in D6) and I were both at a Community Council meeting, and this came up. While the conversation was testy at times, Catherine pointed out that bringing in a port-a-potty or two, a dumpster, and sharps containers now would address the immediate concern. We both agreed that there needed to be some sort of place near transit and services for folks to be who were living in their cars. And above all, reminded folks that we weren't talking about some abstract thing - these were people. While enthusiasm for different parts of the conversation was at different levels, there definitely seemed to be agreement that (a) the city needed to do something for the immediate term and (b) the city needed to build more housing for those most in need.
The City of Seattle gave this idea (sort of) an initial go in 2016. The Safe Lots program was designed to provide a place for folks living in cars and RVs to go, allowing them to "move along" from areas where neighbors had raised concerns about trash and other issues. The lots included a list of rules, which included a ban on alcohol or drug use, a ban on open flames, a limitation on generator use (four hours per day), no dumping of waste, and many of the barriers that we have seen lead to lack of success in transitioning from homeless to housed. Overall, it turned out the city was paying $1,750 per vehicle per month. Some of this was rent (the City was renting land from City Light, a subsidiary of the City, because why not), and had determined that this would be a city-governed site, with 24-hour staffing. Suffice it to say, this plan wasn't perfect, and was very costly. What happened to the folks living at the Ballard site? I have no idea. Earlier this year, one was still operating in SoDo, but generally, this plan, as implemented, was not deemed a success.
Data continues to show that many people experiencing homelessness are living in cars and RVs. It makes sense when you think about it: when you've lost your housing, but have a weatherproof piece of property that can act as housing (a car), would you set up a tent, or live in your car? Especially if you have a job, and can find a way to get in a shower and keep your clothing clean?
That isn't to say that car living is an outcome that would be considered "successful" from a policy standpoint. Housing is. But as we have said time and again - we're not building the housing we need for those most in need overnight. The expectation that the market can provide housing for folks at 30% AMI is a fallacy - the market is designed for profit, and the lowest-income (and no-income) folks in our community aren't going to be pumping money into profit-focused housing. So along with long-term solutions (which are extremely multi-faceted), we have to look at immediate opportunities to provide some semblance of safety and stability, while being cognizant of the concerns from folks who have stable housing. That isn't to say that anti-homeless advocates like Safe Seattle have much in the way of "good points" to make, but derision over education is not going to drive folks who are unsure or have the line drawn for them that homelessness = needles in their yard into the camp of compassionate options.
Enter a proposed ordinance by Council Member Mike O'Brien (D6), designed to piece together many of parts around car-campers, and put in place a sound, and sane, policy. Before I go further: I hold lawyers to a much higher standard than most. People who practice law day-in and day-out should know better than to mischaracterize what a proposed law is. In fact, if they sign their name to a pleading that is not well-researched and grounded in law and fact, it's a sanctionable offense under CR 11.
So imagine my shock when someone running to be the City Attorney for Seattle had this to say about the draft ordinance:
Here's the thing: I like Scott. I like his wife more, but who doesn't? But Scott's a good dude. During the early battles of the war between the Neighborhood Safety Alliance (a precursor to Safe Seattle, the Trump loving white-nationalist/anti-homeless group in Seattle), I witnessed Scott engage with Harley Lever, and Harley was having none of Scott's compassionate approach to homelessness.
But this new Scott - I'm not sure. First, mixing data and anecdotes is just weird. And the implication that we shouldn't help folks living in vehicles because it's somehow racist (based on an anecdote, not data, and...WTF?) is just incredibly off-putting.
What's worse - that's not what the proposed legislation does. The assertion that it "creates special exemptions" from Seattle's Health and Safety laws is without merit, and the bare minimum of legal research - reading the draft ordinance - would clear that up.
Instead, using this proposal as a political football and attempt to pander to anti-homelessness voters is really the only conclusion I can draw. Why one would pander to this group - their candidates (Harley Lever and David Preston, most notably) had a shit showing in August - is beyond me.
Even worse, dismissing an idea outright because something that was in the same realm, while very different, that you led on, and that failed because of itself, makes no sense. Renting property from Seattle and having a high-barrier, non-self-governed encampment for cars didn't work. Okay. We know that now. But we have to be able to bike and chew gum at the same time. We have an emergency, and ignoring completely those who are living in their vehicles - 40% as of this year's Point in Time (PIT) count - because...well, I'm not sure why, is just nonsense.
Of course, this is merely exacerbated when the other high-profile attorney running for office just lies about the ordinance:
This makes me think that Durkan neglected to read the draft ordinance. Because her response makes absolutely no sense. Don't believe me? Here - read the draft yourself.
Basically, this would de-prioritize ticketing and impounding of vehicles (except those blocking right of way) that clearly have people living in them, so long as the residents are participating in a specific program, and are abiding by some additional rules on where their vehicles may be parked. Further, the program would work to divert folks living in their cars to services (such as through the Navigation Team) to ideally provide permanent and safe shelter. (on this, it would be nice if we could somehow show that someone transitioning from a car to an apartment would have a guaranteed 2 years to live in that space, and for junker cars and RVs, offer to purchase them from the individuals, with that understanding that they're getting a guaranteed two years of safe, low-barrier housing).
What we know is that the "Safe Lots" program was not a rousing success. Yet the Tiny House Villages and Tent Cities have been very successful in providing immediate shelter needs, and access to trusted case managers, transitioning people from street to tent to tiny house to permanent housing at an impressive clip.
If we were to go by these two lawyer's approach, the City of Seattle would wait until the 40% of folks experiencing homelessness, but living in vehicles, were so downtrodden that they were in tents or doorways before providing assistance. This despite the knowledge that many providers have that meeting folks before they reach a tent - while they're transitioning from housed to homeless by way of a vehicle - means a less costly re-integration, and from what I understand, greater success in avoiding chronic homelessness.
But when politicians - especially lawyers - shout to the public that ideas are something they're not, particularly when doing so will continue to stoke fear, and fan the flames of anger that the anti-homeless activists already have, while permeating into communities across Seattle, the risk to pressing forward with meaningful policy is huge. Using those experiencing homelessness - and spreading falsehoods about ideas on how to provide safety and stability while at the same time addressing neighborhood concerns - for political gain is abhorrent. Luckily we're in August, and these two lawyers have plenty of time to sit down and read the draft ordinance. And then maybe, just maybe, they can set aside ambition long enough to focus on community education and doing the right thing. It's not always the most politically expedient, but ensuring we are taking care of those most in need rarely is.