In early February, the Seattle City Council took a first step toward legalizing encampments on city-owned property. Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee presented the outlines of the proposed legislation and heard 20 minutes of public testimony.
Lift-off was less than smooth, and support and criticism came from what might seem like surprising quarters. Mark Putnam, from the Committee to End Homelessness, supported the proposal as an “interim survival solution.” Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness Director Alison Eisinger was supportive as well, and she said this was one piece of the larger capacity expansion that we need.
Most homeless people’s testimony, organized by SHARE, criticized the proposal as “redlining,” since it excludes residential areas from consideration.
My own testimony spoke to how the legislation “wants things both ways” and establishes a high bar for service delivery without addressing the cost.
Extending encampments to city property is an emergency measure that helps close the survival gap. It’s not a magic trick that can make homeless people vanish or conjure up new resources in the absence of money.
Encampments at their best, I said, are places where capable people come together with support from allies to create their own self-help communities. That’s a good thing. If you want them to be more, that will take resources.
Limited supply of housing and services means that a huge amount of need gets forced through a relatively narrow funnel. The people who get prioritized are the most chronically homeless or the most vulnerable, like families with women and children.
Often, these are not the people you find in organized encampments.
The exceptions prove the rule. When a family shows up at Nickelsville, it’s usually because family members need somewhere to be while family shelter is becoming available or because the shelter options that exist don’t accommodate an intact family.
When these families find their way to housing, it’s because they were a priority for services in the first place. Unless something changes on the supply side of the equation, the odds of most encampment residents attaining the services they need will not improve just because the city issued a requirement.
Likewise, I expressed concern that new encampments could, without new resources or funding, emulate traditional shelters by logging personal data from residents in real time.
Encampments provide shelter, community and safety cheaply because what little staffing exists supports the self-management of residents.
If we’re going to divert staff resources into fulfilling bureaucratic contract requirements, the city needs to support that staffing.
Finally, I said that the extension of encampments to city property should not be interpreted as open season on unregulated encampments. When campsite removals are made necessary by public health and safety concerns, there must be uniform protocols that include site assessment, adequate warning, outreach and referral, and storage of removed items.
Current protocols were grudgingly established during Mayor Greg Nickels’ administration and have been unevenly observed at best. This needs to change, regardless of the new legislation.
Those of us who support the expansion of regulated encampments are acutely aware that much more needs to be done. If all three of the new sites potentially authorized by this legislation expanded to their full capacity, we’d be talking 300 more people in encampments. Even this assumes the half-dozen camps now sited at churches would continue as they are.
During the 2015 One Night Count, the number of unsheltered homeless people in Seattle alone was 2,813. Three-hundred doesn’t even cover the number of people counted in doorways.
Mayor Ed Murray and the council would like to offer the safety and community of self-managed encampments, while adding the access to services and housing sometimes found in more traditional shelter. There’s nothing wrong with this, but that will take more than a little surplus land.
Two years ago, when Mayor Mike McGinn needed to disband Nickelsville, the city council appropriated $500,000 to move residents into housing. While lots of people accepted the offer, there were always others who still needed a place to camp.
Now we want to move tent city residents into housing, but without the money. Something tells me that’s not going to work.