How is one to respond when the most beautiful, affluent, and liberal city in America outlaws basic human survival? What are we to feel? What words could measure up to the sadness of this moment?
The Mayor’s staff has described their draft policy on homeless encampments as “consistent and compassionate.” Consistent, perhaps. But compassion requires action based upon understanding and empathy.
This is not that.
Seattle has joined the ranks of cities across America whose growing affluence will no longer tolerate the sight of extreme poverty. As urban living attracts those who can pay the price, the visible poor have come under attack in communities from LA to Boston.
Within a few blocks of Pike Place Market, construction cranes mark four developments that will house 505 new condos with an average value of $2 million each. This represents about one-tenth of new downtown condo development.
As the move-in dates approach, repression of visible poverty has dramatically escalated.
Until sometime last year, the City of Seattle mostly left homeless encampments alone until complaints forced action. This was as it should be. Last year’s one night homeless count — held in the dead middle of a cold January night — revealed about 1,600 people surviving on the streets. They slept in doorways and in cars. They rode the night buses. They walked to keep warm. They huddled underneath blankets and inside sleeping bags.
They made do without shelter because the shelters were full.
And then, for reasons that have yet to be made public, City policy shifted. Since at least May, by order of the Mayor’s office, homeless encampments have been systematically destroyed with minimal notification and no regard for the wellbeing or the belongings of the campers.
Once this policy came to light — after Real Change surfaced documentation through a series of Public Disclosure Requests — a blind-sided City Council asked the Mayor’s Office for an explanation. What they received were lies about vacancies in the shelter system, false assurances that most clearances would halt, and empty promises about an open process to create policy.
As we reported last week, the campaign to aggressively clear campsites never slowed. And now we have the policy, formulated behind closed doors and offered for a two-week public comment period and one public hearing that will almost surely be ignored.
The draft policy, which criminalizes overnight sleeping on any public land, is far worse than any of us anticipated.
The Parks Exclusion Ordinance, passed originally to keep City Parks family-friendly, will be extended to every scrap of public property in the City. The power to issue exclusion citations on the basis of mere suspicion is broadly delegated. Exclusion order violations will bring criminal penalties.
Desperately poor people who need services will leave the city. And this is the exact intent.
The policy’s tight language leaves no ambiguity as to what activities are now illegal, but where City responsibilities are concerned — in matters of notification, outreach, storage of possessions, and provision of alternatives — the wording becomes extraordinarily open ended and filled with exceptions.
“Suspicion” of illegal activity nullifies a requirement for 48-hours notice. A judgment by a clean-up crewmember that belongings “may be contaminated by unknown substances” is enough to warrant their summary destruction. The talk of additional shelter for those who are evicted is so vague as to be unenforceable. Outreach is discussed, but no resources are committed and no responsibility assigned.
This policy is no more than the legal justification of an existing immoral practice.
Even more sadly, the Committee to End Homelessness in King County has steadfastly refused to take a position on this, the most significant shift in city policy toward the homeless in memory.
Given that the Mayor is on the CEHKC Governing Board, this is less than surprising, but that doesn’t make it right. Those who claim political and moral leadership for “ending homelessness” in King County are complicit in their silence.
It is unacceptable to allow the work of ending homelessness to be confused with the systematic practice of eradicating the evidence. By harassing homeless campers out of the city, we only deepen their misery and decrease the odds that they will ever find the services they need.
This week, Seattle will hold the Annual One Night Homeless Count. More than 700 volunteers will fan out through the city in the middle of the night to assess whether we’re winning or losing the war.
By turning the fight against homelessness into an attack upon the homeless themselves, the Mayor has undermined the integrity of the longest-running, most sophisticated homeless count effort in the nation.
This is profoundly sad. And sadder still if he gets away with it.
The City’s draft proposal on homeless encampment removal and information about the hearing and public comment process may be found at www.seattle.gov/humanservices. The Public Hearing is January 28, 6:00 pm, in the Seattle Center’s Rainier Room. Sign-up for testimony is between 5 and 6 pm.