Mayor Ed Murray is at an interesting crossroads, and as I write, I have no idea what choice he will make. Either way, this week represents a defining moment in the life of the Murray administration and its attitude toward unsheltered homeless folks in Seattle.
For me, the choice is relatively simple. I stand with homeless people. Options for shelter are radically insufficient, and those who survive on the streets have organized their own alternatives where the city and county have fallen short.
According to Murray’s own announcement of the formation of an Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness, the One Night Count numbers of those without shelter has risen by 30 percent over the past three years.
By any measure, this indicates a crisis that calls for creative solutions and recognition that current resources are inadequate to the need. I am one of 24 people invited to serve on a task force to come up with solutions. As of press time, it’s unclear whether I will accept.
The issue is that two high-profile homeless encampments were served with notices to be cleared on Wednesday, Oct. 22, the day prior to the first convening of the task force on Oct. 23. This was not an encouraging sign.
The Ave Foundation started a small encampment on the sidewalk outside the University District post office less than two months ago in response to encampment clearings in Ravenna and Cowen parks. Their argument has been that people need somewhere to go. If hidden encampments are to be systematically cleared, perhaps a very public encampment is the better option.
The good news is that University Congregational Church has stepped up to host the Ave encampment, and the city, at the eleventh hour, granted a one-week stay to allow for the transition.
This leaves the issue of Tent City 3, which has been run on numerous church properties by SHARE for about a decade. Currently, Tent City 3 is going through a rough patch, and it is on Washington State Department of Transportation land near a Greenlake-area Park & Ride. This well-regulated campsite is currently home to 45 people. The camp is slated to be cleared on Oct. 22 (see “The waiting game,” page 6).
Both sites are home to families. You would think that, given the
sophistication of Seattle’s array of human services, there would be more family shelters that allow men. There are very few. If you are an intact homeless family in Seattle, your easiest options for staying together are your car or one of the tent cities.
To be homeless is to struggle to meet daily needs. It means being exposed to violence, sickness and life-threatening conditions. The average age of death for homeless people in King County is 48.
It means, for many, social isolation and living outside of “normal” society. It means sparse options for employment, health services, treatment for addiction and housing. It means accepting shelter conditions that are often stressful, overcrowded and unhealthy, or choosing to live outside, where you might have more immediate control over your life. It should surprise no one that some homeless people have come together in self-organized encampments.
These are not perfect, but they should be seen for what they are: An immediate survival strategy for and by those whose needs are not otherwise being met. They allow those who opt out of traditional shelter to live in community and relative safety, and it allows them to build caring bridges of support and mutual responsibility with neighbors and hosts.
Tent City 3 has a long history of operating responsibly and honoring its commitments to communities that host it. If the Unsheltered Task Force is to be successful in our work, our solutions must have the support of the broader human-services and homeless- advocacy community. This begins with supporting the efforts of organized homeless people to stay safe in an environment of unmet need and resource scarcity.
So long as the numbers of unsheltered homeless people remain unacceptably high, self-regulated and community suported homeless encampments must be seen as part of the solution — and not as a problem to be eliminated.