We are living in a state of emergency. Every day, nearly 3,000 men, women and children sleep on the streets and in vehicles. Next year, that number is all but guaranteed to increase. There is broad consensus that Seattle needs a new approach in its response to this crisis, the only question is what will that look like.
A proposed ordinance has been thoughtfully crafted by city council members and a coalition of advocates, including Columbia Legal Services and the ACLU of Washington, to provide an answer. It does not tie the city’s hands. Instead, it addresses many of the issues raised by neighborhoods while confronting the circumstances of unsheltered homelessness as they are, not as we wish them to be.
To understand the intent of the ordinance, we first need to acknowledge the realities of the situation.
We know Seattle does not have enough space indoors for people experiencing homelessness. This means that for the foreseeable future people will continue to live in public spaces — this will be true whether we believe this should be tolerated or not. And, hardening the response across the board only serves to drive people underground and further from finding a path off the streets.
We know that neighborhoods have real and legitimate concerns about conditions at some of these sites. Simply put, people who lack access to housing almost certainly lack consistent access to basic services such as garbage collection, toilets, and needle containers. And so, waste ends up in our public spaces, causing neighborhoods and people living unsheltered to suffer.
We know that dangerous criminal behavior cannot be tolerated and put our community at risk. Our police officers, paramedics, and firefighters must be able to respond to emergencies in swift and appropriate ways. This is for the good of us all, including people living unsheltered, who are just as, if not more, likely to be the victims of crime.
We also know that people living unsheltered at times stay in locations that are unsafe or unsuitable. Largely, this is because people are chased, evicted from one site to the next, and offered “nowhere” as the only alternative, which reflects a cold refusal to confront reality. Nonetheless, it is unacceptable for people, even if unsheltered, to block sidewalks, impede traffic, stay on school grounds, or frustrate the broader public’s use of parks or other community spaces.
Given these truths, the new approach must acknowledge that people will stay in public spaces until we build enough accessible housing and 24-hour shelters. It must provide mechanisms to move people who stay in places that are unacceptable and to allow for neighborhood input on these determinations. It must also give people living without shelter access to garbage collection, toilets, and needle containers, and hold them responsible for being good neighbors. It must not frustrate our emergency responders from fulfilling their service to all Seattle residents.
And this is exactly what the proposed ordinance would do. It does not establish a right to camp. But, it requires city officials to point people to alternatives whenever individuals stay in unacceptable locations, such as school grounds. It creates an expectation that people camping maintain cleanliness and order in locations that are tolerable. Ultimately, the ordinance clears a path for bringing people indoors for good once appropriate spaces become available. The goal is not to hobble the city’s interventions but to make such events productive.
This is what a fair, balanced, and compassionate response looks like. No one wants to see our public spaces double as living quarters. But neither magical thinking nor an iron fist will change the number of people living unsheltered.
Over the next several weeks, there will be opportunities to fine-tune language to minimize unintended consequences and address additional concerns. This is the legislative process and the framework will be better for it. But, before winter hits, our elected officials must take action by passing this ordinance.