This is what the Seattle City Council's war on homeless encampments looks like:
I took this photo last week from the Pine Street overpass—where you can see three tents on a concrete outcropping over I-5.
Last Friday, a man who police believe was homeless fell from that ledge onto the asphalt. Witnesses called 911 at 10:46 a.m. to report he fell more than 40 feet, according to fire department spokesman Kyle Moore. Estimated to be in his 40s or 50s, the victim "suffered major trauma and had life-threatening injuries, including head trauma," says Moore. KIRO posted a photo that afternoon of emergency crews at the scene. Medics rushed him to Harborview Medical Center, but there had been no news since.
This morning in an e-mail, Seattle Police Department detective Drew Fowler confirmed the worst: "The man who fell on Sept 5 died the following day as a result of his injuries. In regards to whether or not the victim was homeless, evidence suggests as much, but it is difficult to confirm."
Under Mayor Ed Murray, the city has nearly doubled the rate of homeless encampment evictions, a crackdown that homeless advocates say has displaced people trying to find a safe place to sleep. Shelters are full, and lacking regulated encampments that can be monitored by police, the estimated 2,300 homeless people living on Seattle streets have increasingly been building makeshift camps in unusual locations. Tim Harris, director of the homeless newspaper and advocacy nonprofit Real Change, explains, "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."
"It looks really dangerous," Harris says about the camp above I-5. "Who would camp in a place like that unless they were out of alternatives?"
The city council, primarily, has driven a crackdown on homeless encampments in recent years, including killing a bill in 2013 intended to regulate camps and make them safer, with most of the council arguing that legalizing encampments would be a tacit endorsement of a substandard life. "I think the city can and should do better than tents," says Council Member Sally Clark, who served as council president when she voted against the bill. Clark says she supports shelters and housing instead.
"It's not a question of whether people should be camping," says Harris. "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?"
Other homeless people have fallen from nearby ledges above I-5. In 2011, I personally witnessed this homeless woman's fall from a downtown overpass when she was trying to get to a homeless camp. She survived, miraculously. Homeless people have long camped in dangerous locations and always will, regardless of an official encampment policy. However, that incident three years ago could have been the alarm council members needed to recognize that creating safer encampments would provide a necessary, attractive alternative to more perilous spots.
Instead the city council did the opposite.
Last year, a council majority voted down a bill sponsored by Council Member Nick Licata that would have allowed the city to permit homeless encampments in an effort to make them safer. The measure, defeated by five members of the council (Clark, Tim Burgess, Jean Godden, Tom Rasmussen, and Richard Conlin), would have allowed encampments in nonresidential zones for up to one year and, by legalizing them, ensured they could be policed (unauthorized camps have a history of not calling to police to report crimes for fear of being evicted).
As Anna Minard reported, Council Member O'Brien said last year when it was clear the bill would fail, "These folks still exist. They will be sleeping somewhere."
Shortly before the election last year, the council drove an effort to evict Nickelsville, sending residents scrambling for a new place to live. Nickelsville, which ranges in population from 50 to 200, had ongoing problems with crime and neighborhood unrest, which are the sort of issues regulations and policing may have fixed. The council allocated $500,000 toward housing for the residents, but it is unclear how many people that money actually housed (Clark has not answered that question despite a request). In 2012, the council also stymied a shelter in Sodo.
The number of people living outside in Seattle increased 13 percent this year, according to the annual One Night Count conducted each January, which found 2,303 people living on the streets. The number was 1,989 last year. The survey also reported there is not enough shelter space or housing for everyone who needs it. As of January's count, there are 2,906 people staying in shelters and 3,265 people in transitional housing programs.
Sweeps and evictions of homeless camps have been rising for years, but evictions have notably spiked under Mayor Murray. This is based on research conducted by reporter Aaron Burkhalter at Real Change newspaper, who combed data in the Seattle Encampment Response & Information System (which is a database shared by various city departments that own land, including the transportation, public utility, electricity, and parks divisions). That analysis completed yesterday and shared with The Stranger found 308 encampment sweeps so far this year, which is almost the same as the 312 sweeps last year total—putting Murray on track to do far more sweeps of homeless encampments this year than any mayor before him. As of June 30, Murray had conducted 222 sweeps, compared with 130 by that date in 2013.
Jeff Reading, spokesman for Murray, says the mayor's office does not dispute the figures, but noted that a sweep could range "from removing a sleeping individual from a bench to a removal of an entrenched encampment."
"It seems very clear that activity has increased significantly," says Reading, who adds that may be in part because shelters are at capacity. He says sweeps are conducted in response to complaints and insisted the uptick in evictions is not due to a change in city policy under the Murray administration.
Both Murray and Council Member Clark say they oppose legislation to regulate encampments.
But their critics say that's unrealistic for the 3,000 people who sleep outside each night in King County and can't find shelter. Harris says, "Nobody is answering the question that people need an answer to, which is: Where can I go that I'm not going to get harassed?"
I asked Murray's office that question three times before I got this answer: "We don’t have all the solutions right now, but the Mayor’s Office and relevant City departments are currently working on it, and will have more to say about both the immediate steps we’re taking and our longer-term strategy in the days and weeks ahead," said Reading in an e-mail.
Harris says the primary obstacle to a sensible encampment policy is Council Member Clark.
"Sally Clark has always been dead-set against recognition of homeless encampments as a positive solution or as a survival strategy," Harris argues. "If the council moves to do something around this, it is going to be over Sally Clark's dead body, and she is the chair of the human services committee and she's on the Committee to End Homelessness... She has never recognized that for every two people in shelter, there is one more who is homeless on the streets after shelters are filled. She has never given us the answer."
Clark acknowledges, "I'm not a big supporter of encampments as a formal part of the City's array of programs to get people inside and safe." Asked where people should go instead, Clark didn't answer directly. "We should adapt shelter to work for more people (like families and people with pets)," she says. Pointing to her work on the subject, Clark points out she helped expand the City Hall shelter to a year-round service and she helped find some city money when the Orion Center ran dry on funding. Clark points out that she also supports funding for a "rapid re-housing" project and expanding family shelters and encampments on church property.
But Harris finds that cold comfort, given that those resources are still failing thousands of people every night. "She thinks the extension of City Hall overflow beds for a few months, preserving a few youth shelter beds, and expanding family shelter a token amount somehow makes up for the at least 3,123 unsheltered in King County we know are out there every night," he says. "She never explains the shortcomings of her math."
I understand the council says people shouldn't have to live like this—they say these people deserve better. They say they deserve housing. Well, they're right: Everyone deserves shelter and housing. But we don't have the money to buy everyone shelter and housing. We've tried that with a $500,000 allocation for housing, a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, and a Committee to End Homelessness that appropriates funding. But those things don't end homelessness. Busting encampments doesn't end homelessness any more than busting drug users created a drug-free America. The council says people deserve better than subpar, dirty, dangerous encampments? So give them what we can offer: BETTER ENCAMPMENTS. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy that making people live in illegal camps—in which people are afraid to call the cops, in which crazy internal politics make for unsafe conditions, in which a lack of regulation can lead to unsanitary facilities, in which their very illegality makes them unable to responsibly engage with the neighborhood around them—results in awful conditions. People don't want to live in awful encampments, and the result is more people living on a ledge over the freeway.
The council and the mayor need to wake up: They can't dream housing into being. They have to deal with the real world, and that means accepting encampments will exist in some form, and the best thing we can do for the poor is make sure those encampments are as safe as possible.