A couple months ago, Twitter was buzzing about a new app that would allow people in San Francisco to snap photos of homeless encampments and report them to the cops.
"Illegal tent cities can be breeding grounds for drug abuse, mental illness, harassment, and property crime," the site read. "By supplying information about these dangerous public eyesores, you can help law enforcement make the people who work and live in your city feel safe."
It was satire.
Until this week, a neighborhood group in Seattle was doing exactly what that app promised—cataloguing photos of where homeless people live—but it wasn't a joke.
The group, calling itself "Safe Seattle," was collecting reports about homeless people living in tents and RVs across the city and then displaying them on a map on their website, some with photos of the sites. The map also showed some property crimes and places where residents had found hypodermic needles. I contacted the group for comment on Wednesday, Harley Lever, an Interbay resident and member of the group, refused to engage, criticizing my reporting on these issues as "'Fox News'-like tactics." Since then, the map has been removed from the site.
The map used small icons to indicate different findings: a little red van for an RV, a yellow tent for a tent encampment, an orange syringe to mark found hypodermic needles, a cartoonish masked villain for property crimes. (I took screenshots of the map, but I'm not going to give it any more life here. You get the idea.)
Zooming in on the map allowed you to see the precise location of an encampment or RV and, in some cases, photos and descriptions. "RV stealing electricity," read one description. "Illegal encampment with numerous stolen shopping carts and several large piles of trash on both sides of the road. Needles visible in several places," read another, which included a photo of tents along the side of a road in Ballard.
It's good news for homeless people—who are already exposed and vulnerable to violence—that the site has been taken down. But it's still a telling sign of the damaging "work" these neighborhood groups are doing. At meetings and in media reports, neighborhood advocates continually claim they care about the "truly homeless" and are only concerned about ridding their neighborhoods of crime, yet they use their platform to shame anyone they see living in a tent or an RV.
"When people consider other people to be less than human, it changes their reaction," says Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. "So as we talk about garbage, as we talk about needles, as we take pictures of people in their homes with their very limited privacy, we are essentially engaged in dehumanizing those people and their very human needs."
In talking to homeless people living outside, Eisinger says, "what strikes me is they're subject to public scrutiny, exposed to law enforcement, and unable to set the terms of their own existence every hour of every day. That has to be terrifying."
A lengthy recent Seattle Weekly story explores a similar group, the Neighborhood Safety Alliance*, which has recently shown up at some of the city's meetings about safe consumption sites for drug users. Members of that group have said they're open to the idea, though, for some, that support is conditional on drug treatment. The Weekly story casts their willingness to talk about that idea as an indication that neighborhood advocates are softening their anti-homeless positions. With a map like this, I'm not convinced.
* The exact relationship between "Safe Seattle" and the "Neighborhood Safety Alliance" is unclear. When I have corresponded with the group on Facebook, Lever has responded. Lever has also helped lead the Neighborhood Safety Alliance meetings I've attended, which I've written about here and here. I asked Lever what the relationship between Safe Seattle and the Neighborhood Safety Alliance is, but he declined to comment. As far as I can tell, these are just different names for the same core group of neighborhood activists. UPDATE: Cindy Pierce, a member of the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, says in an email the groups are not connected. "The NSA does not endorse or encourage anything that Safe Seattle does," she says. "The NSA does not contribute to Safe Seattle content."
This post has been updated.