Early yesterday morning, a driver careened off Interstate 5 and crashed into a homeless person sleeping in a tent along the freeway, killing him. Friends told the Seattle Times the victim, Walter Stroud*, was a 19-year-old aspiring rapper who left home a few years ago when he got into some trouble.
Stroud's has become a familiar story in Seattle. According to the last one-night count, about 3,000 people sleep outside in Seattle every night. In the first 10 months of last year, 66 homeless people died in King County. Since declaring a state of emergency on homelessness in November, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has increased funding for shelters and services and promised to overhaul the way the city spends its homelessness money. Still, Murray's administration has continued problematic sweeps of homeless people, forcing them out of where they're camping on public land, sometimes with the help of private companies.
Murray has long argued that these encampment sweeps are necessary in order to move people out of dangerous locations like this site next to the freeway. But the sweeps did not save Stroud. According to two Seattle City Council members, the site had been cleared twice since January. At least two times this year, city or state officials had come in, forced people out, and cleared the area—and that did not stop people experiencing homelessness from ending up there anyway. The Seattle Times reports that another sweep was planned for October.
"During the state of emergency we have learned that people camping on our sidewalks, streets, and green spaces believe this is their best and/or only option," Council Members Lisa Herbold and Sally Bagshaw wrote in a statement. "This is a tragedy in and of itself."
Several hours after the crash, Murray spoke to reporters at the site, decrying the lack of state or federal money for homeless services and raising the possibility of a new city tax to pay for homeless services.
"It is obvious we cannot allow people to stay in places that are not safe," he said, "but then the question comes up: Where do we move people?"
In response to questions, Murray also doubled down on his opposition to a new proposal that would limit instances in which the city can sweep people. That proposal would require the city to offer homeless people up to a month to move unless their site is dangerous or blocking the public's use of a space. It would also require trash and sanitation services for camps of more than five people.
Murray said yesterday the proposal would "prevent" the city from its usual process of offering services to homeless people and then clearing the site. "It suggests that perhaps we put porta-potties and...dumpsters in places like this," Murray said, standing between I-5 and the offramp for northeast 50th Street. "I believe that is absolutely wrong."
In fact, it's Murray who's wrong about what the proposal would actually do, according to Yurij Rudensky, an attorney at Columbia Legal Services who helped draft the legislation.
First, the legislation allows the city to clear camps that pose an imminent safety risk within 48 hours. Rudensky said this site, at the edge of the freeway, would qualify as an imminent safety risk. (The law also only requires sanitary services at camps that do not pose a safety risk and have more than five people.)
Second, Rudensky and other supporters of the legislation argue it would actually make people safer by requiring that when city officials sweep encampments, they direct homeless people to safe places where they can camp.
"It's a very disingenuous reduction of the ordinance to say all we're trying to do [is make it] so is people can live wherever they want," Rudensky said.
When people living outside are told only "you can't stay here" but given no alternative, "people feel harassed and they're moved and they end up going to, quite frankly, more and more remote locations and more and more dangerous locations," Rudensky said. (I asked Murray about this argument yesterday, but he deflected. "What we try to do is identify the places that are the most dangerous and focus on those places," he said. "That is sort of the opposite of what the question suggests.")
"The word 'compassion' gets thrown around a lot," Rudensky said. "From our experience, the locations that seem to be subject to interventions [sweeps] most often are the ones that are the most visible. It has long been our concern that this is about the visibility of homelessness, the visibility of folks living unsheltered, that is leading to a lot of these sweeps and that's a huge issue."
The city council is expected to take up the sweeps proposal in coming weeks, while the mayor's task force on the same issue continues to meet. If the council passes the legislation, the mayor may veto it, meaning advocates will need a supermajority of council members on board to override the veto.
Meanwhile, Murray's vague proposal of a new tax to fund social services was a marked shift from past statements—and it's unclear how serious he really is. In the past, Murray has claimed the city cannot pay more than the nearly $50 million per year it already spends on homelessness.
In a speech in January, he was defensive about calls for more homelessness services, claiming the city would have to cut important services in order to spend more on homelessness.
Yesterday, Murray did not offer specific plans but said he would begin a "conversation" with the city council about the possible new tax. He cited his administration's efforts to open organized tent encampments and fund new shelter beds, but said "it is clear it is not enough." In nearly a year since Murray declared the state of emergency, it was the first time I've heard him admit publicly that "it's obvious that [more money from the state or federal government] is not gonna come any time soon."
*UPDATE: The Times reports the man went by several names, including Walter Burton and Kingwalt LeDiamond.