The philosopher George Santayana once famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Recent experience suggests that those of us who can remember get to relive history as well.
Over the last five mayors, we’ve seen at least four periods of determined crackdown on homeless encampments. The best, to paraphrase Yeats, have lacked all conviction. The worst have been filled with passionate intensity.
Meanwhile, the numbers of homeless people in Seattle, living both inside and out, have only risen. The growth in unsheltered homelessness over the past two years alone has exceeded 40 percent.
One low point came in 2008, when former Mayor Greg Nickels’ administration tried to bully the Church Council of Greater Seattle out of hosting Nickelsville with threats of a daily fine.
While attacking homeless people and their faith allies probably ranks somewhere behind incompetent snow removal on the public outrage meter, it wasn’t exactly wise. Nickels lost his re-election bid during the primary.
Turns out — what with all the affordable housing loss and increased economic vulnerability — that beating up on homeless folks doesn’t always sell like it used to.
Another, more recent, policy nadir occurred this year, with Mayor Ed Murray’s passage of a state of emergency on homelessness.
This initiative, heralded at the time as a bold statement of resolve, was mostly about centralizing control over campsite clearance policy before a new, more progressive Seattle City Council could interfere.
Attempts to warn the mayor that this would undermine his credibility with advocates and service providers were brusquely ignored. Murray has gone his own way on homelessness at considerable political cost
The city of Seattle has had ample opportunity to prove that current approaches to homeless encampments work. They have failed. Miserably.
During a recent city briefing, Finance and Administrative Services Operations Director Chris Potter admitted that 95 percent or so of swept campers either come back to the same spot or another that’s fairly adjacent.
This is to say, a great deal of expense and inconvenience has achieved very little. Here’s why:
Under existing practices, groupings of three tents or more are subject to an inconsistently applied set of rules that disrupt the lives of campers without, for the most part, offering much of anything better.
If people are camped out in less than groups of three, the city can just kick people out and take their stuff without observing any protocols at all. If a given area has been repeatedly posted for campsite removal, no notice is necessary.
Rules for saving and storing personal property have been observed mostly in the breach. Abysmally low rates of property return suggest that this system is both punitive and broken.
Many offered services don’t meet the actual needs people have. The hours are too limited. No storage is provided. Loved ones are excluded, and judgments abound. Camping out in the dirt, where at least you’re generally left alone, feels like a better option.
To many, the majority of existing shelter feels worse that camping outdoors. In most shelters, there’s too much noise, too many biting bugs and not enough personal freedom. The core issue, a radical shortage of affordable housing options, continues to worsen.
Finally, when you’ve been chased around from camp to camp and had your stuff stolen and thrown away time and again, “I’m from the city, and I’m here to help!” simply lacks credibility.
And no one, it seems, is accountable. The city does what it wants, when it wants, without having to answer to hardly anyone.
Seattle’s sweeps policy, as it exists, is a mindless scorched-earth campaign that does more damage than good. And homeless people’s resistance resembles nothing so much as a determined guerrilla army, digging in against technocratic carpet-bombing for their very survival.
We can do so much better than this.
A sane encampments policy builds on the city’s commitment to housing-first and person-centered approaches to homelessness.
It ups our public health game to provide toilets, trash removal and other harm-reduction measures for the benefit of everyone.
It builds relationships with those who live outside by not disrupting their lives more than necessary. If an encampment is not a health or safety hazard, it should be left alone until better options are available.
The most determined opponents of the encampment legislation, now awaiting action in City Council, are filled with passionate intensity, but they’re short on solutions. They have resisted the middle ground. And they don’t seem to care who gets hurt.
It’s time to try something new. Call the City Council today and ask them to pass Council Bill 118794.