A proposal is now before the city council’s housing and human services committee that would legalize homeless encampments on public and privately owned property, in addition to the faith-based sites that are currently allowed. This is an important step toward closing the survival gap, and it deserves your support.
This year, 2,736 homeless people were counted outside in King County after the shelters were full. They sleep wherever they can — in cars, on night-owl buses, in doorways, in greenbelts, under viaducts and bridges — or, they just stay on the move at night and try to get the rest they can during the day.
This is utterly unacceptable. Hundreds of these people have found a better option at one of King County’s self-managed tent cities.
Tent cities, even under the worst of conditions, offer a place to call home and a measure of personal safety. At their best, when residents fully participate in democratic self-management structures and connections are built to supportive networks of caring and respectful allies, they provide a place where people can find services and support while having a voice in their chosen community.
The legislation, sponsored by Councilmember Nick Licata and backed by Mayor Mike McGinn, would open up approximately 600 new possibilities for encampment sites. This would enable the city to supply access to utilities and law enforcement services, thus solving many of the problems that have recently plagued Nickelsville.
Unfortunately, this groundbreaking legislation is opposed from two directions. Both, in my opinion, let perfect get in the way of good and lose sight of the goal of safety and survival tonight.
SHARE and Nickelsville oppose the ordinance because it excludes the residentially zoned neighborhoods that make up 65 percent of Seattle. But changing the legislation to include residentual areas could mean an environmental review and appeal process that would surely doom the effort. Residentially zoned encampments would still be allowed on faith community sites and through application for a temporary-use permit.
Our vendors, many of whom have experience with homeless encampments, support the new ordinance. So does Camp Unity, the well-run Eastside encampment that split off from Tent City 4 last winter. The opinions of homeless people, unsurprisingly, are not monolithic.
The larger challenge will come from those who say that housing and services, not tents, are the answer to homelessness. While this is generally true, it imagines a fully resourced delivery system of human services that simply does not exist. The supply of subsidized housing with services falls far short of demand, and wait lists are typically one to three years and longer.
The indoor shelter that is seen as a “pathway to housing” is often crowded and chaotic and avoided by those who can. Our surveys have consistently shown that the majority of our homeless vendors would rather take their chances outside. Moreover, many homeless people resist the idea of surrendering themselves to a service–delivery system that defines them by their deficits.
Those who dismiss tents as a solution because they’re “not good enough” should consider the difference between living in community or in relative isolation. Between having access to blankets, supplies, food and warmth — and not. Between relative safety and daily vulnerability to street predators. Those are the real choices being made here.
The Seattle City Council needs to hear from you now.
If we ever end homelessness, it will be through movement-building and struggle that challenges the raw inhumanity of our public policy choices, not more efficient delivery of services. This ordinance helps close the survival gap while extending the tent of inclusion to those who need to be heard.