Last night in Magnolia, a room inside the United Church of Christ in Magnolia was packed to standing room only for a meeting of a citizen group calling itself the "Neighborhood Safety Alliance." The group included residents from Ballard, Queen Anne, Magnolia, and North Seattle, and they had a lot to
Most of their complaints centered on homeless people they say are living in RVs in their neighborhoods and, they claim, dealing drugs, committing property crimes, and dumping garbage on the streets and sidewalks. The hysteria dial was cranked up high and, despite claims from the activists that they aren't really anti-homeless-people, reactions from the crowd were hostile.
Residents described "open lawless behavior," "derelict vehicles," "people who are high—you can tell," and "streets [that] look like garbage dumps." One speaker said she was was particularly disturbed after she saw "a large pile of poop" in Woodland Park, called the police, and didn't get a response until hours later. There was a lot of talk about hypodermic needles. If you fall along Thorndyke Avenue, one speaker (who also said Seattle is no longer the "magical place" it was when he moved here eight years ago) claimed, you'd have a "good chance" of landing "in a pile of needles."
Scott Lindsay, the mayor's public safety adviser and just one of a large contingent the mayor's office sent to the meeting, told the crowd "the mayor hears you loud and clear" and tried to reason that allowing vulnerable people to sleep outside and unsheltered is dangerous.
In response, the crowd loudly heckled him.
"You jackass!" someone yelled. A man near me in the crowd at the back of the room said, "Give them a bus pass out of the city!"
As a few sympathetic people made it into the room, one shouted that "67 people died on the streets last year!" Someone else shouted back: "Of drug overdoses!"
As Sola Plumacher from the city's human services department explained the city's efforts to sweep illegal encampments and connect homeless people with services, one audience member's answer was: "They need to be arrested."
Then there was one claim that came up over and over: Members of the neighborhood group said they've heard from police officers that a "stand down order" is in place, directing officers not to enforce laws about property crimes or illegal parking and dumping in these neighborhoods.
Representatives from the Seattle Police Department repeatedly told the crowd there was no such order in place and that the department had "pulled resources from other parts of the city to try to put extra officers in Ballard and... more towards Magnolia." Unconvinced, neighborhood activists continued demanding more details about the supposed order.
That's when things really went to hell for Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien, who was recently reelected to represent Ballard and Fremont.
"We have never issued any [stand-down] directive," O'Brien told the crowd, "but the police are not going to arrest someone for being poor."
In response to that—let me emphasize: in response to O'Brien's argument that cops need reasonable cause to arrest someone, that it's wrong to just assume anyone living in an RV is a criminal—the crowd shouted and booed. "Thanks for the bullshit answer!"
Erica C. Barnett was also there, tweeting from near the front of the room:
Mike O'Brien (whose eyes the lady behind me said she would "gouge out" if he showed) is getting absolutely flayed by this hostile crowd.
— Erica C. Barnett (@ericacbarnett) January 7, 2016
An unpopular sentiment from O'Brien: "we won't arrest someone for being poor." "You don't care!" "Go away!" This man doesn't earn enough.
— Erica C. Barnett (@ericacbarnett) January 7, 2016
O'Brien pressed on, attempting to explain that human waste and garbage are often the result of people who have nowhere to go to the bathroom and no money to pay for garbage service. The solution to drug problems, O'Brien said, is not jail but treatment. The crowd's outbursts continued.
As a potential solution, the neighborhood group proposed a "moratorium" on all RV parking and then the establishment of a special lot where homeless people could park their cars or RVs and agree to abide by rules like a ban on drug use.
Guess what? They're not the first to think of that. In fact, their idea sounds an awful lot like the Road to Housing program O'Brien has spearheaded, which connects people living in their vehicles to safe places to park and access to services. It also sounds a lot like the regulated tent encampments the city has created over the last year.
The problem: When the city moves forward with things like tent encampments, the response is equally vitriolic. Proposals for new encampments in Interbay and Ballard produced the same contentious, shouty community meetings over the summer as the one last night.
Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw told the crowd last night she supports the idea of a lot for people living in their RVs and committed to moving forward on it. So did O'Brien. But, if and when the time comes to create something like that, will this same crowd show up to support it? Will they lobby for more funding for shelter, affordable housing, and drug treatment services? Will they support the taxes needed to fund such programs? And will they be able to do so with a little more compassion for people with nowhere to live but their cars or RVs? It appears that, over the coming months, we might find out.