Real Change asked all candidates in major King County races to talk with us about how they would deal with the housing crisis and answer the needs of people experiencing homelessness. In this spoken interview, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy shared what she would do if she is elected as Seattle’s City Attorney. Ann Davison, Thomas-Kennedy’s opponent in the nonpartisan race, never responded to Real Change’s request for an interview.
You are a change from the status quo. Why did you choose to challenge Pete Holmes for this position?
I chose to challenge Pete Holmes because, to me, it seemed there was a real lack of knowledge as to what happens at Seattle Municipal Court. When I worked there, I was pretty shocked by what was happening. I went into public defense because I wanted to use my agency to help others. I really didn’t think that, in a place like Seattle, I would see something as horrifying as what I saw in Seattle Municipal Court, including people prosecuted for stealing grapes, a mental health crisis and things of that nature, which is really common in that court. Initially, I just wanted to tell people like, look, this is what’s happening. I know he says he’s a progressive prosecutor, but he’s not, and this is what’s happening.
But it was a very much an overnight decision. Initially he was running unopposed, and I was like, yeah, someone should really do something — won’t someone do something? And then someone suggested, “You could; you could do that.” I didn’t give it a lot of thought, which is great because I think I had thought about it more and had really considered what a campaign was going to be like, I might have not done it. So, I’m really glad that I didn’t think about it. I am glad I ran.
How did you feel about how Pete Holmes and the city of Seattle were addressing homelessness from a legal perspective? What would you do differently?
Multiple things. There’s not enough being done around homelessness and preventing homelessness that there could be. There are a lot more protections that could be in place for renters, but not only that, there’s protections in place for renters right now that aren’t being used and are very hard to utilize because people don’t have access to counsel. Things like the First-in-Time law; he (Holmes) did a great job of challenging that, or meeting the challenge in court with that.
But I also think that there needs to be a place where people can actually get access to legal counsel on the spot. That’s one thing I would like to do on the civil side of the office: Have some legal clinics, meaning you just come in and immediately you can talk to a lawyer. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the housing justice project and their model, how they work, but similar to that, where you can come in, you have a problem, you can get help with it, talk to a lawyer. I used to work for a housing justice project, and there was a lot of things that could be solved by one phone call from a lawyer, you know?
I would like people to have access to counsel like that to prevent homelessness. The fact that we have unsheltered people on the street right now, from a legal perspective, I mean, it’s hard because the damage is done, right? When someone’s on the street, the damage is done.
I advocate for stopping the sweeps. There’s a lot of good federal law, and (sweeps) have been challenged in a lot of other places. I would really highlight that and, hopefully Compassion Seattle does not prevail. That would be pretty terrifying for everyone, but I think challenging the notion — that we can do that.
Also, really letting people know that there have been challenges to two sweeps in the past that have been successful. I mean, it’s going to continue to cost the city money to do things this way. One of the things that I saw a lot in municipal court is people become homeless because they’re charged with petty offenses. If they’re living paycheck to paycheck, they lose their job, they lose their housing. I had lots of clients working and living in their car that lost their job and their car and, with it, all of their worldly possessions. There’s a lot of destabilization that takes place in that part that I don’t think needs to happen at all.
One of our vendors was concerned about the disconnect between elected officials and folks experiencing homelessness. What personal experience qualifies you to be the city attorney for a city with so many unhoused residents?
First, I was unstably sheltered for a longer period of my life when I was younger. I left home when I was 15 and had a little trouble supporting myself for a while. I had a lot of good friends to help me out, but it was a struggle. My experience was nowhere near what people are experiencing right now, but building on that, when I became a public defender, that’s who I defended most of the time. Most of the people that are charged with crimes are unsheltered already or are very close to it. There’s really no agency in city government or in town that talks to people and gets to know people in those situations more than your local public defender. I really got to talk to them about their situations, see what was happening, like really rippled out into their community and constantly heard about the things that they were concerned about, whether it’s, I’m concerned about my girlfriend, I’m concerned about my job, I’m concerned about losing everything. Those are the things that I don’t think a lot of people consider or think about that much, but those were the conversations that I was having like every single day. I actually talked to the people that are going through those things. I’ve also done mutual aid; I’ve been present for the sweeps and helped people pack up and things like that. I think that’s maybe more than some people in city government have done.
So you already kind of touched on this, but the advocacy arm at Real Change is firmly against Charter Amendment 29 because it would continue the cruel practices of sweeping encampments and displacing our unhoused neighbors. Do you support Charter Amendment 29 and thus sweeps? Why or why not?
Personally, no, I don’t. The sweeps only make the problem worse. Sometimes when people think of the sweeps, they say, yeah, maybe it’s not like the best thing to do for other people, but at least it takes care of the problem here. And that’s just not true either. As long as we have people who don’t have a place to live, don’t have suitable shelter to live in, we are going to have problems with encampments. Sweeps just move them around — and they destabilize people as they get moved around.
I talked to somebody when I was canvassing, who was saying that they had a friend that lived next to an encampment in Ballard. They weren’t really a problem, but it was an encampment. So, police came in and swept everyone out. Then, you know, the camps sprung back up again like a few days later, and the next round of people seem to be a little bit less stable than the first ones that were there. And then it happened again. And now, every time, there was sort of like a worse element. When you take desperate people and make their situations significantly worse, it doesn’t have good outcomes — not for them and not for anybody else. I hope we stop. I hope.
Homelessness can be a symptom of underlying issues, such as drug addiction or mental illness. Oregon is decriminalizing drug possession. There were also recent decriminalization efforts in the Washington legislature. Should Washington legalize drugs and treat addiction as a public health concern?
Yes. I mean, absolutely. The way that we address addiction and mental health issues in this country makes everything worse. It makes it significantly worse. We can’t jail our way into mental health — that doesn’t really work; we can’t do the same with addiction. The problem is that we keep thinking of it as some sort of moral issue, and it’s not. Addiction is not over there. It’s a public health problem. There’s people who know how to deal with it. And I think that we should be decriminalizing drugs and actually helping the people who are having a problem with them. I think there’s maybe some thinking that people who are addicted are really having a great time, just indulging and whatever, but it doesn’t look very fun to me. People are truly fighting for their lives, and the least we could do — the least we can do — is try to help them in those situations and give them what they need.
Not only is harm reduction really scarce in this town, very scarce — it’s underfunded and generally kind of looked down upon, but they do a lot, especially People’s Harm Reduction Alliance. I talked to them the other day, but they do a lot to keep the community safe. We should really be expanding on those ideas. I don’t think people understand how hard it is to get into treatment if you want it. It’s really, really hard. It takes a long time. There’s a kind of like a coverage nightmare, and different insurances and different agencies that have to get involved. But it’s not as if we live in a place where someone’s like, “I’m ready to get clean.” Okay — and then they can go to treatment. That’s just not the reality at all. So we’re really missing the boat on a lot of people who are ready to take this step who just can’t get that help. And what we’re focusing on instead is criminalizing those people, putting them in jail, making them go through forced treatment when they’re not ready and then sending them back out to live on the street. From every angle, it doesn’t make sense, unless all you’re concerned about is punishment.
The same goes for mental health. It is so difficult to get mental health help in this city — really, really hard. We have some community-based mental health places where people can go, but they’re understaffed and overwhelmed, and (support) is just not there. And so the basic way that we’ve been addressing that problem is just waiting until people are in a crisis so deep that it starts to affect other people, and maybe themselves to a really intense degree. So just to crisis. And we could be doing so much more to make sure people aren’t getting to crisis, and that would be helpful and beneficial to everyone.
How has the Black Lives Matter movement, and then the related calls for police accountability, informed your legal lens, and how would that impact your decision making as city attorney?
As a public defender, I kind of had it in my face every day that this system is pretty racist. At Seattle Municipal Court, still — in Seattle with a progressive prosecutor — Black people are five times more likely to be prosecuted than white people. And that’s not even like a split-second policing decision. That’s a well-thought-out, “I think we should do this and keep doing it” kind of decision, and that’s pretty reflective of all the courts. And so, (regarding) the Black Lives Matter movement, it was really great to see how many people truly understood what the issue was. I think that it brought awareness to a lot of people. It’s been so strange: First, like we get body cameras, and people think like, oh, I guess like this racism thing won’t happen anymore because we have body cameras. And then it’s just like, oh, look, the racist murders continue — now we can see them on camera. And then people are like, wow, that’s terrible. Somebody should do something. And like, you know, when Black Lives Matter came along, they really had a cohesive vision for what they wanted, and it was so effective. I think that makes change easier. There’s no way that there’s not going to be any change. The legal system is never going to save us; there’s not going to be enough change on the inside. That power from the outside — people power, community power — is really where it’s at. And I think that’s what really educated a lot of people on what’s going on.
In what ways have you seen Seattle criminalize poverty? How would you combat these concerns as city attorney?
Ninety percent of the people who are prosecuted by the city attorney’s office currently are poor enough to qualify for a public defender. It really is a court for poor people. That’s what they do there. That’s one of many reasons why I would like an abolitionist framework going forward in the city attorney’s office. We’re not going to fix this. The system doesn’t need some incremental tweaks. That’s what we’ve been doing for 100 years: trying to figure how to make the system less racist. But the foundations of this system are racist and classist. BIPOC, the poor and the disabled are who was locked up in the original prisons and it’s who is locked up in prison now.
There’s no way to change that within the system. But I think the best that we can do is start to build community-based support systems (and) accountability systems that make it so we don’t have to rely on police and courts for everything, because clearly it’s not working to create safety and it keeps reinventing this racist, classist thing that’s happening over and over and over again.
That’s why I suggest maybe we stop doing that? Maybe we just stopped doing that. And we start building the community power that we need. I know that a lot of people think that it’s a very lofty idea, but the U.S. is the only country that locks up people the way we do. We have 5% of the (world’s) population and 25% of the globe’s prisoners. The only country that’s even closest to us in rates of incarceration is El Salvador. Obviously, incarceration alone is not working, but it’s the only thing that we’ve been doing for years and years and years.
I think it’s hard to change that paradigm of “you did a thing and you have to get punished,” but I also don’t think that people realize that the people who are punished are always the poor — always. It’s so rare for a wealthy person to get charged with a crime. It just is. Even when that happens, then they have a team of lawyers that can work on their case alone. Wage theft goes unpunished; it’s never touched in a criminal sense. People set the ocean on fire, and that’s not a criminal matter, or landlords break the law all the time through illegal evictions, and those things are never prosecuted. So, the idea that someone has to be prosecuted when they steal a sandwich is somewhat ridiculous to me, because we’re really only talking about some people; it’s really only applied to some people. That is the way it always has been, and that’s not going to change moving forward.
So, my suggestion is let’s look at what they’re doing in some of these other countries — which are all of them — that actually keep people safer and that leads to some sort of conflict resolution. There’s lots of ideas from all over the world, and we have lots of great thinkers here in the U.S. too, to help us find ways to deal with these situations (and) so everyone can be safe.
Because the idea that we can either have compassion or we can have safety is a completely false narrative. (That idea) got us to a place where we’re the richest country in the world, but people are living in tents on the street. That’s exactly the thing that we need to be attacking. If we want to solve homelessness, we need to have a lens of compassion for others. If we don’t want to deal with this, (it) becomes everybody’s problem at this point. If people don’t like what’s happening right now, it’s not like more punishment is going to solve that problem. If we actually want to solve the problem, we need to have compassionate responses to mental health, to addiction, to poverty. Those are the things that are actually going to get us out of these situations. And it’s going to be beneficial to everyone.
Hannah Krieg studied journalism at the University of Washington. She is especially interested in covering politics, social issues and anything that gives her an excuse to speak with activists.
Read more of the Oct. 6-12, 2021 issue.