Encampments like this one, where a man died from a fall last year, are being cleared by the City of Seattle.
Encampments like this one, where a man died from a fall last year, are being cleared by the City of Seattle. Mayor Ed Murray defended that practice in a speech last night. HG

Mayor Ed Murray is on the defensive.

In an unusual live televised address last night, which happened just after five people were shot at a South Seattle homeless encampment, Murray defended his administration's actions on homelessness. He also, over the course of the 23-minute speech, underscored something we already know about the mayor: He just really, really wants you to think he's doing a good job.

"Some say that we are conducting inhumane sweeps, where all we do is force people out of unauthorized encampments, leaving them nowhere else to go," Murray said. "Others claim that we are doing nothing, and tolerating dangerous criminal behavior, including open drug dealing and property crimes. Neither of those views describe our efforts."

But Murray also criticized homelessness advocates in a more explicit—and problematic—way than he has before.

"I continue to hear from some advocates, joined by some members of the council, who say that even with our unprecedented level of spending, we are still not doing enough," Murray said. "They seem to believe that we can solve this problem by ourselves, regardless of the consequences." He followed that with a lengthy explanation of all the things the city would have to cut in order to find the $49 million a year he says it would take to house all 3,000 people living on Seattle's streets.

The problem: That's not actually what most advocates are asking for.

Real Change Director Tim Harris, one of the city's most outspoken homelessness activists, says that, contrary to Murray’s characterization, advocates don't expect Murray to house everyone. They don't even expect his administration to stop all encampment sweeps. And, Harris says, they're not asking for $49 million a year. (That number is Murray's estimate of the need to house every homeless person in Seattle. During last year's budget process, Murray's biggest foe on the council, Kshama Sawant, joined Harris and others to request $15 million, though they acknowledged that wouldn't house every homeless person.)

"What we're asking for is a much lower bar than what he's indicating," Harris told me after Murray's speech last night. "Nobody is asking him to get all 3,000 unsheltered homeless people indoors immediately for $49 million."

The ask instead, Harris said, "is if you're going to sweep encampments, do it fairly and have the outreach be real... What we're asking for is some humanity in how they carry out the sweeps."

Last week, city council members grilled city staffers about the process they use for clearing illegal homeless encampments and, in some cases, confiscating homeless people's belongings. That meeting also revealed that only about 40 percent of people kicked out of encampments ended up in shelter. While representatives from Murray's administration say they do as much as they can to offer people services when they clear encampments, groups like the ACLU of Washington say the limited number of shelter beds in Seattle means sweeps unfairly chase homeless people from one spot to another. Plus, advocates say, shelters are often full and many of them have sobriety requirements and other rules.

Harris also questions whether the city is providing the same level of outreach to smaller camps—one or two tents—as it offers to larger encampments. If not, those campers may be getting pushed out without adequate connections to shelter and services.

In his speech Murray defended both the encampment sweeps as well as the steps some neighborhoods have criticized, like new shelters, sanctioned encampments, and (soon) "safe lots". That's not accidental. Criticism from both camps will continue as the city responds to the homelessness crisis and could escalate after last night's shooting. The mayor is trying to appeal to all sides.

Murray also said in the speech that the city should focus more on long-term solutions to homelessness, including doubling the housing levy, which helps fund affordable housing and will be up for a renewal this year.

Last night, Council Member Lisa Herbold praised Murray overall but questioned that shift.

"If it truly was an emergency [like a natural disaster] and 3,000 people were on streets," Herbold told me after Murray's speech, "we would not say, 'It's going to be really complicated and costly to fix your homes, but that's how we're going to help you. We would address people's immediate survival needs."

The city council will get another briefing about encampment sweeps on February 10.