Seattle has evicted more than 500 encampments since Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency to address homelessness last year, and in each of those cases, the evicted residents were left to find a new, most likely temporary, home. The state ACLU, Columbia Legal Services, and others, wanting to end this cat-and-mouse game, recently proposed legislation that would allow the city to evict campers only if there is somewhere else for them to go. On Tuesday, Councilmember Mike O’Brien introduced the measure. The proposal has generated a good deal of hand-wringing from businesses and neighbors worried about unruly homeless encampments that the city can’t get rid of. That’s unfortunate. They, and the Council, should wholeheartedly support this common-sense bill—for the precise reason they fear it.
When the city stepped up its encampment evictions earlier this year, we asked: Where will the campers go? It appears we now know. They went to Chinatown, SoDo, and other nearby neighborhoods. Like water from an overflowing bucket, they were displaced, from point A to point B. Wing Luke Museum director Beth Takekawa told Seattle Times reporter Dan Beekman that open-air drug dealing at a nearby unauthorized homeless encampment “almost killed us” before the city evicted those campers … into some other neighborhood.
Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, our reporting has found that local homeless shelters are almost always near or at capacity. There are not enough cots for the (at least) 4,505 unsheltered homeless people in King County. To state the obvious: People are homeless because they don’t have homes to go into.
The ACLU’s bill will allow the city to evict an encampment only if the campers turn down an offer of “adequate and accessible,” and immediately available, housing, or if the encampment is located somewhere especially dangerous (say, on a ledge above I-5). In such cases, the city has to direct them to a “nearby alternative location.” It will also require 30 days’ notice before relocation, unless clearly defined “public safety and health emergency” criteria are met—in which case campers would still get at least 48 hours’ notice, and Seattle would be liable to wrongful evictees for $250 plus damages. The bill also requires the city to investigate complained-about sites for imminent public health or safety threats, like mounds of poop or fire hazards. It would not prevent the city from enforcing other laws at encampments.
Seattle’s homeless policy is at a historic moment—a decision point from which it will evolve toward either more chaos or real, difficult solutions. Now we’ve argued in the past that providing basic shelter and aid to our destitute neighbors is a moral imperative. But forget basic human decency for a moment. Turn off your conscience and selfishly consider the alternatives.
Some have suggested handing out free bus tickets to Portland. Arresting and jailing vagrants, while technically possible, is more expensive than just giving them free housing. One local radio host recently suggested banishing Seattle’s homeless onto an island—a tone-deaf attempt at humor that nonetheless attests to the dearth of coherent ideas coming from Seattle’s anti-homeless crowd. The mayor’s current policy amounts to running the homeless in laps around the city—the government version of looking busy while doing nothing. All these approaches amount to shuffling people around—among encampments, among cities, among jails. That’s not a solution.
This is the last month before budget season begins in October, and it will be a decisive one for the fates of homeless Seattleites. In addition to the legislation O’Brien introduced Tuesday, the Council is considering a resolution from the mayor that would greenlight his plan to evict the Jungle, and the mayor has formed a task force to give recommendations on eviction protocols. Takekawa and others concerned about the effects of homeless encampments on neighborhoods should loudly support O’Brien’s plan and oppose Murray’s. Because as we’ve asked all along: If we evict folks from the Jungle, where do you think they’re going to go?