Beginning last summer, it was clear that city policy regarding homeless encampments had changed. Reports of campsite clearances in and around Seattle became commonplace. Real Change vendors who slept out on their own in urban areas -- in bus shelters, loading docks, and doorways -- described heightened levels of police harassment.
Late at night, long after every shelter bed in Seattle was full, people were being told to get up, move on, and go somewhere else.
We began hearing whispers of a "zero-tolerance" policy, imposed by the Mayor and top-level human services staff. Weirdly, no one would go on record to acknowledge the shift.
Numerous Public Disclosure Act requests by Real Change eventually surfaced an internal email from the mayor's staff. By May 2007, City policy toward encampments had shifted from clearances being triggered by neighborhood complaints to proactive monthly sweeps of at least 10 identified areas.
Further investigation found that the clearances were generally done with one day's notice by Department of Corrections labor -- people performing community service -- backed by police. These focused on removing belongings and destroying camps, and often left the trash behind. Those attempting to retrieve belongings were sometimes threatened with arrest.
Hastily posted flyers directed campers to the Community Service Office for help. This city department no longer exists. Callers reached a disconnected line.
Top leadership of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, which includes Mayor Nickels on its Governing Board, pled ignorance. The City Council, so far as we can tell, was blindsided as well.
To say that the Mayor's new directive was quietly implemented understates the case. This was a covert policy. The city has yet to come clean. Our own investigative efforts continue, and some members of the City Council are pressing for answers as well.
When we broke the story in late October, I predicted that the City would soon resort to a smear campaign. There would be talk of trash, feces, drug use, and criminality. I didn't need a crystal ball. Other communities -- San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles -- were way ahead of us. None of this is particularly original.
Within weeks, Parks personnel and top Human Services staff were conducting media tours. A few hacks took the bait. The Seattle Times ran a grossly uninformed and factually incorrect editorial -- "Squatters, Be Gone" -- stating that there is plenty of room in the shelters. They spoke of the "easy permissiveness" of outdoor living, and called for an end to Seattle's misguided history of "compassionate liberalism."
There is a germ of truth here. The Mayor's undeclared war on homeless campers is at odds with the Seattle that I know. We are better than this.
Let's be clear. No one should have to live outside. Massive homelessness is a symptom of social and economic failure, and few of us care to acknowledge just how deep and broad that failure is.
This system-wide failure is covered up by a patchwork of distortions and lies that isn't always obvious. When the city speaks on this issue, there are a few basic truths to keep in mind.
The shelters are full: Seattle's emergency shelters are crowded past reasonable capacity and turn people away more or less nightly. The existence of a handful of open beds on some nights doesn't alter this. One measure of an overloaded system is a noticeable increase in the turn-aways of women and families.
The effort to "end homelessness" is falling short: While King County's Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness has brought new resources and commitment, we are falling well short of producing the housing required to meet stated goals. Meanwhile, rampant gentrification undermines our efforts. A community-wide reassessment of the Ten Year Plan is long overdue.
Repression is not the answer: The City routinely states that homelessness has declined. A casual read of the One Night Count report for 2007 will reveal how contested this is. There is near complete overlap with one-night count areas and those targeted for regular clearances. Getting count numbers down by any means necessary does not equal "ending homelessness."
Policy? There is no policy: Advocates have pressed the city for involvement in a humane and rational policy toward homeless campers since September, only to be stonewalled. The City has abandoned a well-developed set of protocols that has stood since 1996 in favor of an unrestrained approach that is both illegal and immoral. The City's belated and lonely scramble toward policy creation evades this fact.
Seattle is changing much more rapidly than most of us realize. In the few blocks near Pike Place Market, four new towers are under construction that will, within two years, contain 505 new luxury condos with an average value of $2 million each. This is but a tenth of the downtown condo boom that was unleashed by recent zoning changes.
Seattle's visible poor are not a good advertisement for downtown living, and the carrot of more housing for the chronically homeless has been joined by the stick of heightened repression. This has happened, with variations on the theme, in cities across the nation.
How Seattle responds to the horrific poverty that accompanies the growing chasm between rich and poor will test the soul of this city. It's time for each of us to take a stand. For the next regularly scheduled orientation meeting of the Real Change Organizing Project, email Rachael Myers at [email protected] or call (206)441-3247 ext. 201.