I took this photo on September 5 from the Pine Street overpass downtown. The three tents make up an illegal, makeshift homeless encampment on a concrete outcropping high above I-5. The same day I took the photo, I found out later, a man fell from this encampment to his death.
Now, Seattle City Council member Nick Licata says he will resurrect legislation he tried to pass last year: a bill that would legalize homeless encampments in nonresidential areas, requiring security plans, a mandate for nonprofits to submit site-management proposals, and locations appropriate for sleeping (such as fields owned by the city). Licata appears to have a majority of the council on his side, who say they plan to vote for the bill in order to make encampments safer.
"We owe it to people spending nights on the streets to offer a safe place to stay the night, and encampments have proven to be one of the safe places," says Licata.
But Licata will face opposition—as he has before—from a hostile council president and a new mayor who oppose legal recognition of these camps altogether.
Under Mayor Ed Murray, the city has busted 317 homeless camps within the first nine months of this year—which outnumbers any year on record. Critics say this has created a cat-and-mouse game between enforcement officials and a growing homeless population that scatters to increasingly risky locations to sleep (such as perches above the freeway).
"When we don't take responsibility for the people who are sleeping outside, and instead penalize and criminalize people sleeping outside, it just drives them into more remote and unsafe situations," says Tim Harris, director of the homeless newspaper and advocacy nonprofit Real Change. Looking at the photo, he adds, "It looks really dangerous. Who would camp in a place like that unless they were out of alternatives?"
But there are no legal alternatives. Shelters are at capacity and housing programs are full.
One staunch opponent of regulating the encampments is Council Member Sally Clark, chair of the council's human-services committee, who argues the city should allow only shelter and housing. "I think the city can and should do better than tents."
But, Harris counters, "It's not a question of whether people should be camping. It's the reality. People are camping, and in large numbers. The question is, do we have a responsibility to create some measure of safety for those folks that meets them where they are at?"
And then there's public opinion.
"Offer better encampments??? WHY???" asked one of our blog commenters when I first reported this man's death on our website. Another person added: "I'm not my brother's keeper. If you die from falling, that's on you."
These sentiments get to the heart of a broader conservative-versus-liberal fight in America: whether the government should proactively accommodate troubled sectors of society in order to reduce long-term financial and social costs to everyone. This question applies to, say, providing free clinics in order avoid expensive emergency room visits—or, in the case of the homeless, permitting tightly regulated encampments on public land as an alternative to ledges above the freeway, thereby avoiding the exorbitant public expense of ambulances, police cars, and intensive care.
Although medics rushed the man on I-5 to Harborview Medical Center, Seattle Police Department detective Drew Fowler reported, "The man who fell on Sept. 5 died the following day as a result of his injuries."
Other homeless people have fallen nearby. In 2011, I witnessed and called 911 to report a homeless woman's fall from the Olive Way overpass onto the freeway when she was trying to access a homeless camp. She survived, miraculously. The Seattle Times reported on the incident, which could have been the alarm council members needed to recognize that sanctioning safer encampments would provide an attractive alternative to more perilous spots.
Instead, the council cracked down on encampments. They stymied a shelter in Sodo in 2012 and led an eviction of Nickelsville in 2013. They also killed Licata's first attempt at a bill to allow legal homeless encampments last year. Five council members (Clark, Tim Burgess, Jean Godden, Tom Rasmussen, and Richard Conlin) nixed the measure, which would have permitted encampments for up to 12 months with various safeguards to ensure they could be policed (unauthorized camps have a history of not calling police to report crimes for fear of being evicted).
The council's balance has since shifted leftward, after socialist challenger Kshama Sawant defeated Conlin last year, giving encampments a second chance. Four council members have told The Stranger they would vote for Licata's measure, giving him the five votes required to pass the bill. "I feel obligated to give it another shot," says Licata. "The homeless problem exists now as much as it did when the council last defeated the bill."
It exists more, in fact.
The number of people living outside in Seattle increased from 1,989 last year to 2,303 this year, according to the annual One Night Count. Sweeps and evictions of homeless camps have been rising for years, but they have notably spiked under Mayor Murray. Aaron Burkhalter at Real Change newspaper combed data in the Seattle Encampment Response and Information System (a city-run database). His analysis, completed September 15 and shared with The Stranger, found 317 encampment sweeps in the first eight and a half months of this year, already more than the 312 sweeps that occurred in all of 2013.
Mayoral spokesman Jeff Reading does not dispute the uptick in evictions but says it is not due to a change in city policy. A sweep could range "from removing a sleeping individual from a bench to a removal of an entrenched encampment," he says.
Last week, Murray proposed $1.5 million for homeless services next year, boasting that his plan to move long-term shelter users into housing would free up "3,375 shelter bed nights." But that only translates to nine more free beds year-round. Where should the thousands of remaining people sleep?
"We don't have all the solutions right now," the mayor's office said in an e-mail.
Murray would not veto Licata's bill to legalize encampments, he said at a press conference, but he still opposes the idea, as does Council President Burgess, who refused three times to answer a question about whether he would use his parliamentary authority to try blocking such a measure.
The council's more conservative members have argued that authorizing encampments would be a tacit endorsement of a substandard life. Murray, Clark, Burgess, and other council members say homeless people deserve better than tents—and they're right: Everyone deserves housing. But they can't afford to buy shelter and housing for everyone who needs it (realistically, nobody expects them to). Still, if they don't have that money, it seems difficult to justify spending more money busting camps in a futile game of Whac-A-Mole, either.
Busting encampments doesn't end homelessness any more than busting drug users created a drug-free America.
Keeping encampments illegal guarantees homeless people will set up more illicit camps where they live in unsafe conditions, lack sanitary facilities, and are afraid to call the cops. The very illegality of these camps makes them unable to responsibly engage with their surrounding neighborhoods. So if the city dislikes dirty, dangerous encampments, we should give them what we can offer: better encampments. The council and the mayor can't dream housing into being. They have to deal with the real world, and that means accepting that encampments will exist in some form, and the best thing we can do for the poor is make sure those encampments are legal, regulated, and as safe as possible.