Call it an irony, but tragedy is the better word. As the city has pointlessly driven unsheltered people from pillar to post, Real Change has often said that if a homeless encampment has nowhere better to go, the campers should be left alone.
You can post a campsite for removal, remove the tents and throw away belongings, and yet, if there’s nowhere to go — no shelter or sanctioned encampments, much less housing — what happens next?
Most often, you get a homeless person, struggling to survive, who doesn’t have a tent, sleeping bag or blanket, and has lost the few other possessions they have.
People persevere. They weather the setback. They find new gear and they either come back to the same place or somewhere nearby. And they still have nowhere better to go.
Maybe, reasons the city, if we fence off the places where homeless people survive in groups and permanently post no-camping signs, that will help?
It hasn’t. As out-of-the-way camping places like the Jungle and beneath I-5 in Ballard have undergone enclosure, homeless people have moved to more in-the-way locales.
Such as the tenacious encampment right outside the Real Change office. Or the half-dozen others around the corner on Alaskan Way.
Seattle is experiencing a self-inflicted homeless encampment refugee crisis.
As local street construction has eliminated parking outside our Main Street entrances, and a fence has risen on the street to protect the piles of equipment at our curb, we’ve gained a small unauthorized encampment right outside our doorway.
The construction workers tell us that this happens often. Their fencing acts as a screen, and, like water seeking an outlet, tents and homeless people appear in semi-hidden public spaces.
When the occasional tent arose on our sidewalk before, we could usually talk them out of there. Now, one tent leaves and another replaces it. And the people who live there don’t move when asked.
And, frankly, why should they? It’s not like anyone wants them somewhere else.
I’d be lying if I said it’s not a problem. Needles and trash are right outside our door, and are strewn about the fenced off construction equipment where our parking used to be.
Our Real Change vendors walk past the tents when they come in for papers. They resent the interlopers and the mess. They ask us to move them along.
We’ve tried. The Navigation Team has nowhere for them to go. The Metropolitan Improvement District workers help a bit with the trash, but have no more success than we do in getting them to leave. The police have told us to stop calling.
A few weeks ago, I ran into a downtown business advocate I’m friendly with and decided to give her a hard time.
“Hey, what are you going to do about the tents outside our business? We want them gone!”
Have you tried “See It, Send It,” she asked? “I hear it also works great for potholes.”
We both had a good long laugh.
The truth is, there isn’t much to be done unless there is somewhere better for them to go. And this is the tragedy part, because there isn’t.
Real Change is small potatoes. We have about $1.2 million in annual revenue and 15 full-time employees, which is well below the threshold for being considered for a new business tax to build very low-income housing.
But you know what? If $500 a year would, over time, solve this problem, we’d pay.
Five hundred dollars a year is less than our annual dues to belong to the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness. It’s less than our membership in the Seattle Human Services Coalition. Or our membership in the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance.
It’s about a third of our membership fee in the International Network of Street Papers.
We struggle like any other business, but we could do that.
Five hundred dollars annually to build housing would be money well spent.
And while we believe that businesses such as Amazon should shoulder their proportionate cost, we’d also be happy to be part of the solution.
It’s our problem too.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Wait, there's more. Check out the full April 11 - April 17 issue.