One chilly morning, Bob Purcell woke up to headlights shining in his face and the sound of a car door slamming.
“You can’t sleep here,” a policeman said, as Purcell groggily began to gather up his belongings from inside the nearly-empty parking garage.
“This is private property, look at the sign,” the policeman said, pointing.
Purcell loaded his blankets and backpack onto his bike, wondering where he would sleep next.
A few months ago, Purcell slept in a park and received a warning from police, so now he can’t fall asleep in a park without risking jail time. There aren’t any spots to sleep without risking run-ins with the police or thieves. So, he headed to the suburbs and settled down under a bridge.
“I still get woken up and told to leave around twice a week,” Purcell said. The lack of sleep makes it difficult to focus on his job as a caterer downtown.
Purcell has been homeless in Seattle for six years, so none of this is new to him. Sometimes it feels like he’s being hunted.
“We’re targets as much as we’re perpetrators, on average,” Purcell said.
Cities across the United States, Seattle included, routinely cite and fine homeless people for living in cars, camping and sleeping on public property. This happens through laws homeless advocates call “criminalization ordinances,” which essentially penalize people for being homeless.
Most of these laws were created with seemingly well-intentioned motives, such as keeping public spaces clean and safe or promoting businesses. The problem with criminalization ordinances is they disproportionately target homeless people for the simple acts of sleeping, relieving themselves and storing their belongings during the day.
“In many communities, including King County, poor people are not necessarily being arrested for being poor, or ticketed for being poor, but they are subject to fines, discriminatory practices, harassment and in some cases incarceration because the circumstances of their life expose them all the time to law enforcement,” said Alison
Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.
In essence, what people do in their homes and apartments legally becomes illegal for people living outside.
“This web of laws makes it virtually impossible for a person experiencing homelessness to avoid tripping on a wire,” said Sarah Rankin, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law and director of its Homeless Rights Advocacy Program.
In the past few years, the international community has come to recognize laws that alienate and criminalize homeless people as a violation of human rights.
The United Nations’ 2015 periodic review of the U.S. stated that laws criminalizing homelessness are “not in conformity with international human rights instruments” and should be amended.
“The U.N. coming out and issuing clear and compelling guidance on how homeless individuals should be treated is a very persuasive human rights argument,” said Yurij Rudensky, an attorney with the Economic Justice Project at Columbia Legal Services.
On the local level, few policy makers and enforcers acknowledge the disproportionate effect of criminalization ordinances on homeless people. However, there’s a growing local and international conversation about how these laws are violations of human rights.
Nowhere to go
Before she and her husband got a spot at Tent City 6, Real Change vendor Sabina Lopez used to sleep in a park with other women and children.
When the park started clearing out in the evenings, they would set up their sleeping bags in a group for safety and drift off to sleep.
More often than not, Lopez said she was rousted around 10:30 p.m. by a police officer standing over her shining a light in her face, telling her to wake up and pack her stuff in the next 10 minutes.
“They always told us to leave but not where we could go to,” Lopez said. “So we usually just waited till they left and went back in. At the time, I would start crying. I was really overwhelmed and just tired of this.”
Getting fed up with this ordeal, Lopez and her husband decided to try sleeping under a bridge downtown. The first night went smoothly, so they walked to a nearby meal service for breakfast. By the time they got back, law enforcement was already packing up their belongings.
Thankfully, they got there in time to grab their stuff and go.
The annual One Night Count tallies people like Lopez who live outdoors, in tent cities, cars and doorways. In 2016, the count tallied 4,505 homeless people in King County.
There are 3,690 shelter beds in King County, according to All Home King County, a regional organizing body working to end homelessness. There are many other access barriers to shelters other than space, but the reality is that shelters aren’t a viable option for everyone without a place to sleep. Some can’t access them.
Others, such as Purcell, don’t like staying in shelters.
So, where do they have to go?
“Essentially, nowhere,” Rudensky said.
According to Seattle law, camping on public property is illegal. That means no tent encampments and no camping in parks or on the streets for shelter from the elements.
For those living in cars, it’s just as difficult, if not more so. Although Seattle doesn’t have a law that outright bans living in a car like Shoreline, Tacoma, Kent and
Federal Way do, vehicle regulations make doing so nearly impossible.
It’s difficult enough to park in Seattle for a few hours, let alone keep a vehicle parked legally for an extended amount of time. Some areas ban parking overnight from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. or for certain blocks of time during the day.
In 2016, 914 Seattle people lived in their vehicles according to the One Night Count — the largest category among those that One Night Count tallies, including people living in tents, cars and on the street — and an 18 percent increase since 2015.
According to a Seattle University study on vehicle residency, those living in their cars in Seattle receive more tickets than housed residents. Vehicle residents often don’t have the funds to renew their tabs and need to leave their cars in spaces for more than 72 hours, disproportionately receiving tickets for these violations. These citations concentrate in areas such as Ballard and Wallingford that are frequented by vehicle residents.
Even standing and sitting can result in an infraction for homeless people. In areas downtown called Business Improvement Districts or BIDs, visibly poor people are sometimes asked to move along, effectively hiding them in nooks and crannies of the city, according to a Seattle University study.
“We’re telling people that as a result of their poverty, they’re not welcome in our community,” Rudensky said. “That they cannot perform the activities that we all need to engage in as humans in this community.”
Seventy-four percent of homeless people don’t know where it’s safe and legal to sleep, according to a 2013 survey by the Western Regional Advocacy Project.
From September 2010 to September 2015, the Metropolitan Improvement District (mid) in downtown Seattle conducted 22,843 trespass and wake-up visits to homeless individuals, around 63 interactions per day.
Don Blakeney, Vice President of Advocacy & Economic Development at the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), said the Seattle University report doesn’t reflect the work of the downtown mid over the last 10 years.
“I think it was responding to the 1990s, it’s not really the way the dialogue is playing out today,” he said.
Two years ago, the DSA launched an outreach program in the mid with the intent of connecting homeless people downtown with the resources available to them.
Outreach isn’t enough. Encampments fill parks, line the streets and scatter across greenbelts to the point that law enforcement cannot simply send them away.
Rudensky of Columbia Legal Services noted that there are stretches of land underneath Interstate 5 where the police allow people to stay, so long as they pack of up their belongings and leave by 7 a.m.
“These aren’t official policies, they’re just certain individuals who are tasked with enforcing laws making their own rules around what is reasonable,” he said.
It’s about human rights
In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned the criminalization of homelessness in the U.S. as a violation of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights, and called upon the U.S. Government to make changes. The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination echoed this concern.
In 2015, the U.N.’s periodic review of the U.S. included a recommendation to “amend laws that criminalize homelessness and which are not in conformity with international human rights instruments.”
Ultimately, criminalization manifests itself through local ordinances, and the responsibility to stop it lies in the federal and local governments, said Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
The U.N. recommendations are helpful to build collective pressure to get federal, state and local policy changed, but in and of themselves, they aren’t enough to stop the criminalization of homelessness in the U.S.
“Up to this point there are no cases that I’m aware of where a U.N. proclamation has held the force of law beyond being persuasive to the judge,” Rudensky said. “This is something that advocates can cite, but ultimately using a U.N. proclamation as the basis for legal action, I don’t think that’s going to be a successful means of getting any kind of change.”
The U.N. can’t make the United States stop criminalizing homelessness, but what it can do is normalize the concept of criminalization as an infringement on human rights. The U.N. recommendations give weight to the argument against discriminatory policies and give advocates another tool in their belts.
There is evidence that the federal government, at the very least, is receiving that message.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a brief in a lawsuit over encampment sweeps in Boise, Idaho, presenting the idea of criminalization as an infringement on Eighth Amendment rights barring excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment.
Although the case was not successful, it laid a brick upon which an argument could be built.
The federal government has responded to this international pressure, but many local governments still haven’t gotten the message.
While efforts to prevent new criminalization laws from passing is helpful, Bill Kirlin-Hackett, director of the Interfaith Taskforce on Homelessness, said the root of the problem lies with laws already in place.
Stopping lawmakers from passing new laws that criminalize homelessness is not enough, he said.
“It’s about turning around laws that are already sitting on the books,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “In looking at the [Seattle University] report on vehicle residency, Seattle alone has 20 laws that criminalize people living in vehicles. So what if they don’t pass number 21? They’ve got 20 already that they’re not changing.”
Until the laws are changed, people like Purcell continue to struggle to survive.
After being chased out of parks, parking garages, bridges and benches, Purcell said he’s beginning to feel like he’s not wanted in society.
“There’s a private property or no trespassing sign on every square inch of Seattle, which basically means I’m not welcome on the rich man’s planet, and I have no right to exist,” he said.