At a Jan. 23 meeting of the University of Washington’s University Transportation Committee, student activists — including grad student, City Council district 4 candidate and former House Our Neighbors! staffer Matthew Mitnick — butted heads with committee chair Anne Eskridge, who is also the director of UW Transportation Services.
At issue was a proposal to spend $300,000 of capital funds to install “security upgrades” to the sprawling Central Plaza Garage. Citing safety issues, the university plans to install roll-door-style gates at the garage’s entrances, keycard access doors on all the stairwells and a network of security cameras in the garage, per a presentation given during the meeting by Transportation Services staffer Eric Johnson. The project, which Eskridge said is already approved, would be completed by early fall of 2023.
While Johnson’s presentation listed graffiti, property damage, car break-ins and thefts as some of the safety concerns, the students said the proposal’s true intent was to exclude unhoused individuals using the garage for shelter.
“In previous meetings, staff from UW Transportation Services and other committee members have identified unhoused individuals as being the specific reason for doing this,” Mittnick said in an interview immediately after the meeting.
While the garage has many users besides those who park in it — skateboarders seeking shelter from the rain, student drumlines looking for a place they can be loud, live-action role players looking for a suitably large battlefield and so on, ad infinitum — the students believe the university is primarily concerned with people experiencing homelessness. Or, at the very least, it is blaming all of the garage’s safety issues on them. According to Mittnick, certain members of the committee’s leadership have said as much during meetings.
“In fact, one committee member in a previous meeting used a slur to describe someone who was unhoused, referring to [those people] in his words as ‘stair sleepers,’ which is really disgusting and just a bad way to frame it,” he said. “They were basically articulating that as the main concern for safety, and they were trying to make this argument that these car break-ins, thefts and threats were due to unhoused individuals.”
Many homelessness advocates caution against conflating homelessness with crime. Amoshaun Toft, a professor with the UW Bothell School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, told Real Change in April 2022 that doing so is often a way to shift blame for societal issues to those who suffer the most from said issues. Worse yet, claims that unhoused individuals are the perpetrators of most crime, rather than the victims of it, are rarely verified, he said.
Mittnick agreed with that analysis.
“I think their motivation here is being harmful to our neighbors who are unhoused,” he said. “That they're using the housing crisis and the untrue — but all too common — stereotype that those who are unhoused are criminals, are on drugs, are presenting safety concerns… [B]ased on even their own emails they've sent us, they have shown no actual evidence that anyone who is unhoused or has taken shelter or uses the garage for whatever reason is part of these alleged safety concerns.”
Eskridge declined an interview request sent via Zoom chat, directing Real Change to the University’s press office. Materials sent from Eskridge to committee members before the meeting acknowledge that “the UW has unsheltered neighbors who have sought refuge in the Central Plaza Garage, among other locations in the University District. This will no doubt continue to happen after these upgrades.”
To meet the needs of these neighbors, the email continued, “UW staff, UWPD officers and outreach allies will continue to help unsheltered neighbors find safer shelter and other support. For the past two years, that ally outreach has come from REACH workers who connect with unsheltered homeless, build trust and help people find their way to stability.”
Victor Balta, a UW spokesperson, said via email that the upgrades were not specifically targeted at unhoused people taking shelter in the structure.
“Unfortunately, users of the Central Garage regularly report feeling unsafe, though, not specifically for encountering homeless people,” he wrote. “Reports include encountering people displaying erratic or, occasionally, threatening behavior, as well as human waste and drug use paraphernalia. Student, staff and faculty users of the garage have asked the University to improve safety, especially in the more isolated parts of the garage. Better wifi, security cameras and controlled access doors after hours are intended to address these concerns.”
Instead of excluding unhoused individuals from the garage, Mittnick argued, the university should spend that $300,000 to help them. Public bathrooms, he suggested, would mitigate many of the issues with public urination and defecation in the garage. Affordable housing wouldn’t hurt either, he added. Eskridge, in her pre-meeting email, did highlight an affordable housing project on UW property, as well as the university’s “regular” hosting of Tent City 3 in its parking lots.
At the end of the day, Mittnick said, the garage should be maintained as a free and available public space.
“These are public facilities that are funded by taxpayer dollars,” Mitnick said.
Measures to exclude members of the public from university facilities like keycard access points and increased police presence have been slowly increasing and should be cause for alarm, he said. The proposed changes to the Central Plaza Garage are, according to Mittnick, part of that campaign.
“When I first started going to school here, you did not have to have an ID to get into the majority of libraries or public facilities to get to the restroom,” he said. “I think that this is all tied to that push [to restrict access].”
Beyond any questions of the public’s right to use university facilities, he said, letting unhoused people sleep somewhere that is relatively warm and dry is simply an ethical thing to do.
“Especially when the weather is so horrible, [the garage is] one of the few places on campus that you can take cover in,” he said.
As public comment grew more contentious — student Susie Lepow attempted to read a long passage from Che Guevara’s book “Guerilla Warfare,” but, much to the chagrin of her fellow students, was cut off after three minutes — Eskridge pled for civility, complaining that members of the committee had “endured” being called fascists at previous meetings.
While it was typed into the chat, the anger in one student committee member’s reply was palpable:
“What do you think unhoused ppl have to endure in the cold?” they wrote.
After public comment and Johnson’s presentation on the Central Plaza security updates and several other major transportation projects, student members of the committee revived a motion tabled from the previous meeting condemning the Central Plaza project. It failed, prompting them to propose and second a new one, which also failed.
Before the votes, while fielding public comment, Eskridge reminded the students opposed to the plan that the committee was only an advisory body and had no legislative authority over university operations.
That, Mittnick said, felt especially patronizing. While the students are still trying to figure out who has final say over the project and how they could potentially stop it, he said, they feel like Eskridge is downplaying her role.
“The leadership of Transportation Services has made the unilateral decision to do this, which is kind of why we are directing a lot of [our complaints] towards the chair, Anne Eskridge,” he said, “because she's also the director.”
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Feb. 1-7, 2023 issue.