“We are building [housing] at a faster rate than we’ve ever built before and more people are entering homelessness than ever before,” says Council Member Mike O’Brien.
"They're kidding themselves," Council Member Mike O’Brien says about the Seattle Times Editorial Board. City of Seattle

The Seattle Times Editorial Board has come out, yet again, against an effort to help people experiencing homelessness. In an editorial, the board opposes a new proposal from Council Member Mike O'Brien to create a diversion program that would help people living in cars and RVs avoid tickets and towing. The program would connect people living in vehicles with service providers and give them a one-year amnesty from tickets, booting, and towing.

The ed board’s central argument is that the city should focus on getting people in housing. “Get people inside," the board repeats three times in the editorial.

An early draft of O’Brien’s proposal, earlier last week, would have given a sweeping break from parking fines for people camping in cars and RVs. O’Brien released a narrower version on Thursday, with a one-year parking ticket amnesty for RVs in industrial zones.

Both plans miss the point. Homeless camping, in vehicles or tents, is a system failure in this affluent city. Get people inside.

This argument sounds good—who doesn’t want to provide housing for people living outside?—but it’s bullshit. And it’s dangerous.

“We know the only thing that solves homelessness is housing,” Sara Rankin, a professor with the Seattle University law school's Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, told me when I spoke to her recently about O’Brien’s proposal and the backlash against it. “But too often people use that knowing that we cannot reach that goal anytime soon. They use that as something to hide behind when they refuse to engage in interim solutions.”

As often as we hear anti-homeless forces in Seattle say things like “rolling meth labs” and “junkies,” we hear lines of argument like the one the Times is making here. As we've seen for years, it's easier to support tidy longterm solutions—even those that may be years or decades out of reach—than the emergency responses and harm reduction that may be less palatable to angry Magnolia neighbors. And as opponents try to take down O’Brien’s latest effort, they’ll employ this line again. After all, it sounds better than "not in my backyard."

But the longer the city does nothing to address the needs of people living outside right now, the worse their living conditions will get.

Longterm solutions (like housing) and short-term solutions (like not towing away the vehicle that contains all of a person's possessions) are not mutually exclusive. To hold short-term solutions hostage to longterm solutions is to condone harm to those in need of those short-term solutions right now.

In Rankin’s words: “They’re called longterm solutions for a reason.”

“We can’t even find housing for people who can pay for it, much less people who can’t,” Rankin said. “We are being incredibly naive and dishonest when we don’t focus on any effort to address our current homeless crisis.”

To its credit, the Times Editorial Board reluctantly supported last year’s housing levy, which is expected to build or save 2,150 affordable housing units.

But it’s worth remembering how that number compares to the number of people actually in need of housing right now. Across King County, 11,642 people are currently homeless, according to the last count. About 8,500 of those were in Seattle and nearly 3,900 of those in Seattle were unsheltered, meaning they sleep in cars, RVs, tents, and doorways. (The Times has also resisted efforts to open up single family zones to more density in order to, you know, build housing.)

In the editorial, the board also claims the city should keep its focus and money aimed at its longterm plan for reducing homelessness. That plan bets the city can house everyone living outside if it changes how it spends millions of dollars a year on homelessness programs. One cornerstone of the plan: Shift money to "rapid rehousing" programs, which give homeless people temporary subsidies they can use to rent apartments on the private market—so long as they can find private landlords willing to rent to them. If editorial board members read their own newspaper, they would know how hard that can be in Seattle's red-hot rental market. The city's plan may work, but it will be difficult and it will take time. In the meantime, people are living outside and in vehicles and facing harsh consequences.

“The idea that somehow if we could just focus on permanent housing, it's just around the corner," O’Brien said, "[that] we’ll crack this nut and everyone will get affordable housing—they’re kidding themselves.”

The kind of argument the Times is making here is potent. It lets the board and its readers off the hook by allowing them to claim they wants what’s best for people experiencing homelessness while actively opposing something that could actually help them right now. And, unless something changes soon, it may be the only line the city council hears from the public.

O'Brien said the council has already "been inundated with folks that either listen to Dori Monson or are on the Neighborhood Safety Alliance listserv."

Meetings to consider the legislation have not yet been scheduled, but O'Brien encourages his supporters to talk to their neighbors and write their council members.

“We’re going to ultimately need to win this debate in the public eyes,” O’Brien said. "Talk to your neighbors, weigh in on Nextdoor—however you communicate in your neighborhood. If the only voice out there is Dori Monson, the Times Editorial Board, and the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, at the end of the day, even if I have sympathetic colleagues on the council, it’s going to be hard to get this done.”