Seattle is now more than a year into a city-declared state of emergency around the issue of homelessness. On November 2, 2015, the office of mayor Ed Murray announced the emergency declaration, as well as a one-time allocation of $5 million dollars to fund 100 new shelter beds as well as a number of other immediate services. The press release at the time stated:
By declaring a state of emergency on homelessness, the City will have more administrative authority and flexibility in contracting for services and allocating resources in response to the homelessness crisis. With this authority, the City is able to deploy critical resources more quickly to those in need, including specific action to address Seattle schoolchildren experiencing homelessness.
Throughout the next year, however, the main way that the issue of homelessness came back to the front of mind for most Seattleites was through a discussion on the sweeping of encampments. The Murray administration came into office and proceeded to dramatically increase the rate of clearing out people sleeping outdoors in areas where the city and the state department of transportation did not want them to be.
These sweeps were unpredictable, residents’ belongings taken and held at an office in an out-of-the-way location or simply thrown away. Activist groups raised these issues for months, until the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services decided to submit their own legislation to the city council as a way to move a solution forward. It is not often that an outside group submitting legislation to the council gets so much attention, and all the more unusual that the council would act on it so quickly.
This fall, two competing bills emerged from the basic idea that the ACLU had proposed: people have a constitutional right to exist somewhere. This is an issue that is coming up around the country, including in a recent case in Boise, Idaho that the U.S. Justice Department filed a brief in. To quote the brief:
“[i]t should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment. . . Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
The two possible city council bills, which came out of the offices of Mike O’Brien and Sally Bagshaw, who often refers to homelessness as her number one issue, would more clearly define where people should be allowed to camp, and set certain parameters for when an unauthorized encampment may be cleared. Despite language added in committee to clarify no public right to camp in parks or near schools, neighborhood groups mobilized and incorrect information circulated on social media. A map showing city park space labelled as potential camping sites was traced back to the mayor’s office, which has opposed this legislation since it was first introduced.
After a contentious number of public meetings, a council vote on any legislation related to the camps was tabled until after budget talks. During the final public meeting on the proposed bills before they were put on hold, Mike O’Brien, in between considerable heckling from audience members in attendance, said this:
“The challenge I run into here is that if I start from the place on this ordinance of saying the number one objective is to make sure that we continue to hold all park land and all SDOT right of way in the public trust for the use it was intended to, that leaves us a challenge. Because the reality is, we don’t have any land, any public land that’s held in public trust for homeless people.
And I am committed to the vision that I think we all share, that as soon as possible, having enough housing and enough shelter, so that no one in our city has to live outdoors. And I’ve worked on that for the past number of years, and I will recommit to working as swiftly as possible to make that happen going forward.
But tonight there are thousands of people in our city that are going to be sleeping outdoors without shelter, and my legislation starts from the place that those individuals have a human right, have a constitutional right to sleep somewhere.”
If Seattle is committed to remaining a sanctuary city, at the risk of federal dollars in a Trump administration, the city as a whole would be wise to come to grips with its own policy toward people living on the streets.
Meanwhile, the main agenda item on homelessness that the mayor’s office is pursuing is the plan called Pathways Home. Pathways Home operates under the assumption that a large portion of money being spent on homelessness would be better redirected toward long-term solutions. From the mayor’s homelessness website:
“There is no question that our system is overly focused on providing expensive, temporary shelter. In fact, seventy percent of our nearly $50 million investment is spent on emergency shelter services. We know, and national experts have confirmed, that emergency responses are not the answer. Every dollar spent on emergency beds is a dollar not spent on strategies that allow people to exit homelessness.”
The idea that the resources we are currently allocating could be refocused appears to be the heart of the Murray administration’s approach to the issue. The city commissioned a report, from national homelessness expert Barbara Poppe, which provided a basis for this thinking. It included three main recommendations: 1. Create a person-centered crisis response system, 2. Improve system performance by increasing accountability, and 3. Implement well with urgency.
A year into the state of emergency, that last point is worth hitting home. From the report:
The communities which are making the greatest reductions in homelessness – Houston, Las Vegas, and New Orleans – are acting boldly and with urgency to rapidly change systems to meet the needs of families and individuals who are facing homelessness. The findings of this report and the 2016 Focus Strategies report indicate that Solutions are within imminent reach. If the City of Seattle acts boldly and with urgency, reductions in unsheltered homelessness can occur quickly.
The mayor’s proposed budget for the next two years includes $12 million to implement Pathways Home, which includes a whole slate of investments, some long-term, some short-term. All of these investments appear to be sorely needed and well-selected. A 24-hour navigation center to provide outreach to people living on the street is probably one of the most clearly beneficial. We are making slow progress.
Meanwhile, the Mayor has come out opposed to the idea, supported by six sitting council members, to use city bonding capacity to build up to 500 affordable units, adding onto the housing levy’s planned units that were approved by voters in August. The mayor’s office claims that taking on the debt via bonds would be risky, and that the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, paired with the levy, are set to bring 20,000 affordable units in the next 10 years.
Given the fact that increased rents are so strongly correlated with homelessness, with a 2012 study showing that for every $100 of rent increase nationwide, a 15% increase was seen in the population of people experiencing homelessness, the onus is now on the mayor to justify why we should not act quickly to end our city’s state of emergency as soon as possible. The clock is still ticking.