In September, I started working in one of the centers of downtown Seattle’s “public-disorder” problem: Pioneer Square. Real Change’s offices are located at First Avenue South and South Main Street, a block from Occidental Park, one of the places where “crime and disorder are highly concentrated,” according to Mayor Ed Murray’s staff.
Each weekday morning, I disembarked from the “E” bus line on South Washington Street between Second and Third. Across the street was the Union Gospel Mission Men’s Shelter. Just half a block north on Second was Catholic Community Services’ Lazarus Day Center.
Every morning a small crowd of homeless people milled around, wandering back and forth between the two sites like the survivors of a nuclear bomb blast. Some were ragged, others were ravaged by drug-use and still others were quietly arguing with or screaming obscenities at unseen demons — tormented by untreated psychoses.
Their resigned desperation tore holes in my soul.
Just to the south, for much of the fall and winter, people would sleep under the long glass and metal easement that used to protect the customers of Masins Fine Furnishings & Interior Designs from the elements. Where once you could enter an emporium in search of just the right chaise longue (starting at $1,899) now men and women lie huddled together on top of cardboard and under piles of blankets and tarps.
In November, an impossibly thin woman, with ropes of matted gray hair, wearing a long billowing white nightgown, hobbled a few steps out of her improvised hovel and squatted and peed, sending up billows of steam as her hot urine hit the sidewalk.
By December, the people were moved along elsewhere.
One afternoon, on my way back up South Washington to the bus, three young men, wearing identical blue parkas sprouting fur-lined hoods and frequently consulting smartphones, had taken up a slow patrol on the sidewalk. They were in residence for several weeks, dealing drugs, perhaps.
They were chased off by that most common Seattle blight: Construction. A construction crew with heavy equipment and a cop to direct traffic appeared on South Washington. The workers quickly tore up the street and left a gaping hole. Soon after, police bicycle patrols and even a King County Sheriff’s van showed up and some of the ragged regulars who wandered the alleys and clogged the storefronts were arrested.
Now they will have to score their drugs in the jailhouse, I thought.
Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), said he constantly receives complaints from his business members about the state of downtown. He reeled off a list: “January 6th, a mugging; December: a bellman punched in the face; September: exposure and public urination and defecation on Fourth and Stewart; 8:30 a.m., last Wednesday, two people naked, drug paraphernalia everywhere, they had written in blood all over the windows.
“I don’t think anyone would say it’s getting better. It impacts the workers at these places, residents, business owners. It’s not violent crime but very unfortunate and disruptive behavior.
“We need more shelter capacity [and] tent cities. But what are we going to do with people who turn down services and want to shoot up heroin in doorways and behave aggressively toward people? We need a mechanism to hold people accountable. We are going to engage with people, offer services and housing, but if they don’t respond, there needs to be a criminal-justice response. We don’t have enough of either — carrots or sticks.
“The mayor said a lot about this issue when he ran for office. He brought in Chief [Kathleen] O’Toole, who lives downtown. We’ve had good conversations, but what’s the plan?”
Lisa Daugaard is one of the founders of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program that wants to replace a criminal-justice response to drug addiction, drug possession and low-level drug sales with harm-reduction treatment and housing.
She said the DSA “has been very supportive of this approach.” At the same time, she said [Scholes]”is factually correct: There are people who are turning down services and behaving aggressively. A person may turn down services today, but not next week.
“It’s not a simple yes-or-no question. You can work with that person to lower the barrier [to services]. The person might keep sleeping in the doorway for one month, two months, but if they’ve been doing it for two decades, two months is effective.
“There are far too many people who have to live on the streets.
“There are far too many people who are suffering from mental illness or addiction issues. You can call that [public] disorder or a public health crisis.”