This week we anticipate that the homeless sweeps will come to Real Change. Last winter, an encampment arose between the two doorways that are the entrance to our vendor center, and over time it has only grown.
For an organization that has always stood up for the unsheltered, this presents a dilemma.
Our mission is to provide opportunity and a voice to low-income and homeless people while taking action for economic, social and racial justice. Our first responsibility in this is to provide a safe and welcoming space to the vendors of Real Change.
This means making choices that aren’t easy.
While each of the campers on our doorstep got a copy of our Emerald City Resource Guide, that doesn’t help much. There is no phone number to call that gets you off the street today. The shelters are full, and the lists to get into housing are long.
The crisis on our streets is partially self-inflicted. The aggressive closure of unauthorized encampments that began three years ago with Mayor Ed Murray’s declaration of a State of Emergency has forced unsheltered people into more-visible and less-viable locations.
Instead of camping in the relative seclusion of The Jungle, unsheltered homeless people have occupied urban spaces in ways that collide more and more with the rights and needs of others. Everyone has suffered as a result.
The pipeline from street to shelter to housing has slowed to a trickle, and we are meeting a bare fraction of the need. The levels of conflict have increased while effective remedies remain elusive. Frustrated tax payers see increased spending without immediately visible results.
This has brought more meanness to our civic discourse.
This is why we are happy to see Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council bring new resources to this issue, however disappointing the compromise legislation may be.
Yes, $47.5 million in new revenue is far short of what’s needed. It is not $150 million. It is not even $75 million, but it does represent an important departure from the past.
For once, we have broken with the Seattle Way, and powerful business interests will pay more of their fair share.
The Seattle Way, for those who are unfamiliar, is the assumption that being pro-growth and pro-business is enough.
The Seattle Way says that if we cater to the whims of powerful concerns and offer them the tax breaks, zoning changes and the enhanced infrastructure they desire, the municipal revenue base will grow and everyone will be taken care of.
The Seattle Way has failed miserably. Since Real Change began in 1994, we have seen both median housing costs and rates of homelessness roughly triple. While Jeff Bezos has grown rich enough from his Seattle-based startup to fund his own space program, many of us can no longer afford to live here.
Passage of the Employee Hours Tax — despite the stiff opposition from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, despite the ugly victim-blaming rhetoric of Safe Seattle, despite the doomsday scenarios that Amazon will leave, taking their crappy, soon-to-be-automated, median-salary-of-$28,000 jobs with them — was a huge step in the right direction.
While many were disappointed that the spending plan was altered to provide less housing and more immediate shelter and services, I get the logic.
Our shelters are overcrowded and conditions tend toward the dismal. To many, camping on a sidewalk is preferable to being indoors. Shelter workers are criminally underpaid. Hygiene and health services are too scarce, and there are precious few places for people to be during the day.
If we want to see a difference on our streets, the alternatives to camping in public must become more attractive.
Expanded and improved emergency services, along with more housing, will offer the improvement needed to make the tax sustainable. The worst-case scenario for elected officials is to pass a new tax and have nothing visibly change.
And yet, we need our new mayor to proceed with caution and compassion. Escalated homeless sweeps in the absence of better alternatives has only made things worse. More of the same is not what this city needs.
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.
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Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.