Our economy and community have left 10,000 Seattlelites without the basic right of a home, a fact that should create empathy and solidarity. Addressing the issue by curtailing any attempt to gain a secure living situation only causes more harm, while wasting money and time by chasing homelessness from place to place. The city doesn’t have the resources to instantly house all. Knowing this, the most ethical thing to do is to establish places that are safe and non-disruptive, and offer people the closest thing to home we can: restroom access, sanitation, and peace of mind from the potential of losing everything.
Lead by council member Mike O’Brien and supported by the ACLU and Department of Justice, the plurality of the Seattle City Council has proposed legislation to protect unsheltered residents from Mayor Murray’s “cleanups” of unauthorized encampments. The sweeps arrive after a 72 hour notice (at a random time, typically closer to 10 days), confiscate all property, and throw away any bags (out of safety concern) and all objects deemed worth under $25, often disastrous to those affected. Sarah Russo, whose ID, clothes, and tent were lost to a sweep, stated, “They didn’t even say sorry. They just said it was at the dump.” Regaining possessions adds another burden, as Mike Baker at The Seattle Times describes, “Many residents interviewed mentioned the challenge of finding where their items had gone after a sweep. When a reporter called the city help number that’s left at many cleaned encampments, even the person answering the phone didn’t know where the belongings had been stored.” 98-99% of confiscated belongings are never recovered, trashed after 60 days in Industrial District storage. Along with the cleanup, the city makes an attempt to connect the residents to shelters, but its effort and success is notoriously low; of 293 displaced people from last November to January, just 90 received shelter, and a Seattle Times story covering a sweep witnessed the outreach team arrive late after the fact. Small encampments are not even guaranteed the 3 day notice and resource outreach. Despite being Murray’s primary tool for his state of emergency on homelessness, these cleanups are a fundamentally harmful, inhumane, and ineffective practice. The proposed legislation defines suitable and unsuitable locations for people living outside, and solves the sanitation issue by bringing garbage cans, porta potties, and needle disposal to them. Despite the clear problematic status quo of sweeps, the negative response to the legislation and general anti-homeless rhetoric has been massive.
One concern has been the potentially destructive environmental impact of people living in the woods. “They must be preserved so all of us can enjoy them from dawn to dusk,” one concerned citizen pled at a recent City Hall hearing. Green spaces are absolutely essential to community and health, and no one wants to give that up. However, prioritizing the needs of those that have time to take a daily recreational walk above the greatly disenfranchised is not an option. Improving the human condition for some while ignoring the most vulnerable is injustice, and fostering access to basic human rights should be first civic motive. The housing crisis is the reality of our tech booming city, where median rent has increased by 45% since 2012, and the number of tent sites has increased from 80 to over 500. People do live outside right now, and those fortunate enough to remain stably housed through the boom are not prevented from experiencing the outdoors. There’s a fearful argument that assumes the unhoused population would burgeon from the legislation passing, covering Seattle’s parks in camps, especially considering Seattle’s year-round survivable climate. However, there is nothing to suggest this policy decision would have a larger impact on park occupancy than the influx of wealthy people has. People don’t choose to lose housing, it is a difficult and stressful experience. Criminalizing living outside only makes it harder to regain. Right now, there’s no distinction between places that could be harmful to others and places that would generally be considered unobtrusive. All have 72 hours to vacate. Protestors wielding their children at City Hall brought signs labelled, “No Needles In Our Playfields,” bringing up stories of needles having already been found in playfields, and fearing the idea of chemically dependent people having the right to a 30 day eviction notice while occupying a place meant for their kids. This ignores that the bill specifically cites play fields as an “unsuitable” area, and proactively addresses concerns about needles by creating safe disposal sites. Most of the points that protestors brought up are absolutely valid existing issues, and are to some degree addressed and solved by the legislation. These issues cannot be solved in a polarized debate: there must first be a better level of communication and understanding established that can create solidarity and empathy between housed and unhoused neighbors.
Unsheltered people are constantly dehumanized with distrust of their reason for being outside. The following are common sentiments expressed when homelessness is brought up in Seattle:
- “The big issue is people wanting to live outside. Shelters exist, and I’ve heard that they’re often not full,”
- “The reason we have so much homelessness is because we have so many resources available. Vagrants seek here, so the only solution is cutting them off,”
- “There’s nothing Seattle can do for people with addiction and mental illness,”
- “They don’t pay taxes, I do, so should we owe them anything?”
They all draw on individuality and “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” logic, an emotional mentality built by faith in The American Dream. Exposing its vulnerabilities with the fact that 90% of Seattle’s unsheltered population is from around here, or that Washington’s sales tax on prepared food is incredibly regressive, is not enough to shatter it. A conversation can completely dispel this logic. For example, Sean is a lifelong Seattleite and single father living in an authorized tent city. “The city has essentially no resources available for single fathers, only single mothers,” he told me. Not wanting to have his kids grow up in the tent city, a family in Tacoma from his church are fostering them, and he visits every weekend. He works night shifts and is a strong leader in his community and the housing justice movement.
Consciously, the vast majority of people agree homelessness needs to be solved in a way that doesn’t rely on individual bootstrapping. Simultaneously, people experiencing homelessness have been characterized as a looming threat, preventing empathy at the population-level from occurring. For example, Councilmember Kshama Sawant received a mob scream of “That’s not true!” to her plea that, “being homeless isn’t easy, people don’t choose it.” The same crowd with signs that read, “Housing Not Tents,” booed Sawant’s proposal to build 1,000 public housing units, portraying themselves as wanting better solutions while supporting no solutions. Others generalized their unhoused neighbors as “degenerates”, and internet discussions on the legislation have even given proposals for incarceration and genocide a place.
Homelessness presents doubt about the complete functionality of our system to those that benefit from it, so the initial reaction is usually blind defense rather than anything constructive. People don’t want to confront our greatest issues: about a third of Americans are a single missed paycheck or sudden expense away from losing housing, yet we’re conditioned to individualize success. Our city has historically rejected densifying from its single family roots, resulting in a failure to accommodate the tech boom and displacement of those outside it. Privatized healthcare means an incident that could happen to anyone can put you on the streets, and the heroin and fentanyl epidemic is rooted in incentives for doctors to overprescribe opiates. The residual effects of redlining and segregation continue, with the average black family having 1/13th the net savings of the average white family, and greater odds of ending up in the criminal justice system, causing lifelong employment loss. The lifestyle of the Tesla-driving wealthy has a far greater carbon footprint than the unhoused, and all property ownership and profit is ultimately exploited from less wealthy people. We aren’t born with equal ability and need to be self-reliant. Once the privileged acknowledge responsibility to the underprivileged, they can communicate with and offer voice to the unheard, and can mobilize their greater resources to creating justice.
The proposed legislation isn’t enough, and passing it should not placate us. It’s simply the most basic statement of empathy: you’re a person living in our community, so you deserve the unalienable rights to a place to be and a place to pee, and you shouldn’t have to worry about whether those will be there tomorrow. When O’Brien declared these as constitutionally-backed, shouts of “no!” came from the crowd. Lacking a place you’re allowed to sleep doesn’t seem compatible with the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Without listening to the people experiencing homelessness, we can’t really get anywhere at improving the situation, and people experiencing homelessness have called the sweeps inhumane and destructive.