In a recent talk about shelter space at King County Jail, the word “optics” came up more than usual.
Merriam-Webster defines this as “the aspects of an action, policy, or decision (as in politics or business) that relate to public perceptions.”
Let’s use it in a sentence.
“Symbolism matters,” Harris said. “Just the optics of housing homeless people in a jail are horrible,” (Seattle Times, Oct. 6).
“The optics of people taking shelter in a former minimum-security jail are, I would suggest, not as bad as the optics of hundreds of people having to sleep out in the rain and snow,” Constantine said, (Seattle Times, Oct. 11).
“This is a really, really charged image of placing people who are experiencing homelessness in a facility that is part of this haunting optic,” says Sara Rankin, (City Lab, Dec. 28).
But, jail shelter is happening, optics be damned. A new shelter has also recently opened at Harborview. Between the two facilities, about 200 low-barrier shelter beds will open up more or less in time for the new year.
I hate being this cynical, but I’ve seen this movie before. It goes like this: January approaches, and with it, the new homeless point-in-time count. The city adds just enough new shelter beds to say unsheltered homeless people have somewhere to go. Homeless sweeps escalate dramatically. The count happens. The numbers still go up.
It’s the annual ritual.
The MDARs (Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules) allow for the removal of tents classified as hazards or obstructions without the 72-hours notice promised to other encampments.
Additionally, nine new cops were added to the Navigation Team alongside service capacity.
This means that the 400 or so unauthorized encampments on the city clean-up docket at any given time will get churned faster. That is all. There will still not be nearly enough housing or shelter or even places to go, but complaints from businesses and residents will get handled faster. The misery will remain.
Most will return. Some will seek relief in neighboring communities, such as Shoreline and Burien, where the enforcement isn’t as streamlined. That’s already happening, and those communities aren’t happy.
Homeless people will experience this as increased harassment and punishment. People coping to survive, instead of getting what they need, will be driven further into a negative cycle of stress, addiction, and defeat.
It’s like a big game of shuffleboard, but the pucks are people and the object is to not have them land on your space.
Why? Because we care more about optics than homeless people.
When we fence off “out of the way” places like The Jungle, people are forced into more visible locations where they are more “in the way.” Then we chase them around. I call this “doubling down on stupid.”
Since former Mayor Ed Murray declared a Homeless State of Emergency three years ago, this has been the response. It’s a downward spiral of displacement and enforcement.
This optics-driven strategy has backfired, and the fallout isn’t pretty. It’s made homelessness visibly worse, and hate sites such as Intentional Blight in Seattle have capitalized on the frustration. Urban homelessness is the new alt-right wedge issue, and it’s working.
The left has been happy to oblige. When we say, “Stop the sweeps,” what most people hear is “do nothing.” That just feeds the frustration.
There is an obvious answer. Homeless people have told us what they want all along. End the forced march to nowhere. Give people someplace to go.
Homeless people have told us what they want all along. End the forced march to nowhere. Give people someplace to go.
Addressing decades of policy failure takes time and resources. Meanwhile, Seattle needs spaces for people to be that don’t escalate the sense of urban crisis.
Call them Harm Reduction Zones. Do trash removal. Bring in sanitation. Invite community support. Stop punishing people for existing, and allow the space to build relationships that heal.
It’s not a long-term solution, but it’s a humane and depolarizing approach that buys time, involves the community and doesn’t label homeless people as the problem.
*An earlier version misstated the state of the Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules (MDARs). The community-led MDAR Advisory Committee met for 18 months and has dissolved without the adoption of any recommended changes. Also, the expansion of the Navigation Team includes funding for outreach services and field coordinators.
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.
Read the full Jan. 2 - 8 issue.
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