I have been very disappointed in the reaction of many Seattelites to the proposed sites for city-authorized homeless encampments (“tent cities”).
They are up in arms, but seem to act primarily from raw emotion based on uninformed stereotypes of homeless people.
When I recently visited Tent City 3 in Shoreline to learn more about the place, I found that residents are regular people, just more down on their luck than some of the rest of us. As with the numerous neighborhoods that have hosted authorized camps over the past decade, there has been insignificant negative impact, if any.
In March, the Seattle City Council, urged on by Real Change and other advocates, voted to allow encampments on city property for the first time.
The Department of Planning and Development has proposed three sites that City Light no longer uses in Ballard, Interbay and Sodo.
The first community meetings in Ballard and Interbay attracted numerous vocal opponents, most of whom seem motivated by either a general distrust of the city or by nimbyism. (Not In My Back Yard — “encampments may be OK, but not near me.”)
Particularly in Ballard, “Seattle nice” was missing in action. At the Interbay meeting, one heckler wanted the city to send homeless people “back to California.” One formerly homeless RC vendor reacted to the various comments by courageously telling the crowd, “I feel like you’re talking about animals, not people.”
Unfortunately, the number of homeless people in Seattle is exploding. The annual King County one-night count in January found 3,772 people without shelter in King County, sleeping outside or in their vehicles once the shelters were full — an increase of 21 percent in one year.
Homelessness has many causes. Gentrification in Seattle has eliminated thousands of low-income housing units. Federal money for public housing has dwindled to a trickle. Market-level rents have skyrocketed. The Journal of Urban Affairs found that homelessness increases 15 percent for every $100 increase in average rent. Even in affluent Seattle many people are in tenuous financial circumstances — only a couple of paychecks or a personal crisis away from being unable to pay for housing.
How should well-meaning people respond to this significant and visible problem? Understandably, neighbors close to the proposed encampment sites are concerned. But rather than reflexively reacting in opposition, those people should imagine walking a mile in the shoes of the less fortunate.
Imagine what it would be like to live outside for a week in Seattle with no money at all.
An increasing number of people already sleep in tents. They are not safe, subject to being robbed, assaulted and much worse. Permitted group encampments provide security for residents. No one argues that organized encampments are a solution to homelessness. But the problem is so dire that a limited number of permitted camps is a necessary part of the short-term solution.
New tent encampments in the Seattle area typically bring outcry from neighbors. Invariably, within a few days after campers move in, the opposition vanishes because camps make good neighbors. They are self-managed and expel people who violate detailed rules of conduct (e.g., no drugs or alcohol permitted). Some residents may be a little scruffy compared to those who are fortunate enough to have housing, but a threat to “health, property and community” they are not.
I urge neighbors to become informed before joining the knee-jerk responses against the three proposed sites. Go to public meetings about the camp and listen to the information that people with experience present. Check out the website for share/wheel, one of the organizations that will sponsor the new encampments: sharewheel.org/home/tent-cities.
You might even arrange to visit Tent City 3 yourself. If you go with an open mind, what you’ll learn will be reassuring.