There’s been a lot of straw man rhetoric around homeless sweeps lately.
This is when someone knocks down an argument no one actually made. When this happens, there is usually a lot of indignation involved. That’s because straw man arguments are more about dismissing concerns than reaching agreement. They’re about being right and making others wrong.
Maybe you’ve heard some of these:
Seattle must end homelessness immediately, even if that means defunding other city programs.
It is compassionate to abandon people in The Jungle to violence, drugs, crime and filth.
No homeless encampments should be cleared until shelter and housing exists for everyone.
None of which any serious homeless advocate has said, ever.
Homeless advocates are, by and large, reasonable people. It comes from years of gradually diminished expectations.
What we want is what any caring person wants.
We want anyone who is homeless to have the best chance possible of getting the services they need, whether they are indoors or not.
That’s where a truly consistent and compassionate approach to homelessness begins.
The 2016 One Night Count showed a 19 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness in King County. With 4,505 homeless people counted outside after the shelters were filled, we know that more than one in three homeless people lives outdoors.
Let that sink in for a moment. More than one in three homeless people in King County lives outdoors.
If our goal is to make homelessness rare, brief and one-time, we need to treat people who live outdoors like they’re as deserving of help as anyone else.
We have to get past the idea that all the good, deserving homeless people are in the shelters and transitional housing, and all the bad, non-compliant ones are criminally lurking in our greenbelts.
We need to treat everyone fairly.
When the Seattle City Council was recently briefed on encampment clearances by Mayor Ed Murray’s staff, here’s what they were told: Encampments may be removed without notice when there is illegal activity or a safety threat, but otherwise, campers always get 72 hours notice. Outreach workers will use that time to offer people shelter and services. When an encampment is cleared, any items of value will be stored for later retrieval. If someone wants shelter indoors, we can usually offer that.
This is perhaps how campsite clearances occur on paper, but it’s not the reality. Making this description true would require changes to current protocols.
The city would need to provide notice for all non-emergency encampment removals, and not just the ones with three or more tents.
The city would not treat frequent campsite areas as no-go zones, where no notice or outreach is required and tents and belongings may be disposed of at will.
In a world where meeting the needs of homeless people was put ahead of politics, outreach workers would be given the time to build relationships, and no one would be displaced unless somewhere else that meets their needs was available
That’s what a consistent and compassionate encampment removal policy would look like.
Of course, we’ll always want more.
We would like Washington state, for instance, to not be the 46th ranked state for access to mental health services.
We would like treatment on demand, so that addicts can get clean when they’re ready to change and not when services are available two to three months later.
We would like enough family shelter and housing for no kid to ever be homeless.
We would like homelessness to be rare, brief and something that never happens to anyone more than once.
But that’s not what we have. What we have is a housing market that doesn’t work for the poor, a shelter system that can’t keep up and a political system that keeps its victims ready.
So lets not make things worse than they are. When we treat all homeless people fairly, we get better outcomes all around. Isn’t that what we want?