Seattle Swings Between Hounding The Homeless And Leaving Them Alone

Sep 29, 2016
Originally published on September 30, 2016 8:18 am

Americans are seeing more homeless camps, especially on the West Coast. A number of cities there have declared emergencies over the problem, and as they struggle to find solutions, an angry debate has broken out about how much tolerance should be shown to illegal camps that crop up in public spaces.

Earlier this month, that debate got a lot more urgent in Seattle, when a young homeless man who was camping along Interstate 5 was killed by a car that careened off the roadway. A couple of hours after the death, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray visited the site to view the wrecked tent and address what he calls the city's "homelessness crisis."

"It is obvious that we cannot allow people to stay in places that are not safe for them," Murray said.

The city has tried being more aggressive about clearing out illegal campsites, especially after five people were shot — and two of them killed — in a notorious camp called "the Jungle," back in January. But the city's "sweeps," as they were called, quickly ran into an angry backlash from homeless activists and civil rights groups.

Now, the Seattle City Council is considering taking the opposite tack: passing legislation that would give homeless campers more rights to stay where they are, if the city can't offer them adequate permanent shelter. They'd even be entitled to city services such as garbage pickup.

For some people, this takes tolerance too far.

"Seattle, frankly, needs adult supervision," says Republican state Sen. Mark Miloscia, who is running for state auditor. Miloscia took a stance on the issue a day after the death along I-5 by calling a press conference in front of a small group of homeless people in a park near the Space Needle.

"This is lawlessness! I believe it will attract tens of thousands of people to our state, and our jungles will get even worse," he says.

Homeless advocates say the argument over whether to tolerate the camps is a distraction. Barbara Poppe, a national expert in the field and former head of the Obama administration's anti-homelessness efforts, says cities won't have to decide whether to tolerate illegal camps if they do a better job of addressing the needs of the people in the tents.

"The problem we have now is that there isn't a real option offered to folks to be anyplace other than where they are," Poppe says.

Seattle hired Poppe to analyze the city's homelessness services, and in her report, she recommends deep changes. She says the city should redirect its spending to programs that can show real long-term success in placing people in stable housing.

The report represents the new thinking in homelessness services, something called "Housing First," which prioritizes getting people into permanent housing and reducing barriers such as making sobriety a condition for shelter.

This approach has been tried elsewhere, with success. But there's no guarantee improved services will make the camps disappear.

"The people who really want to get off the street out here in Seattle, they can get off the street," says Tim Jackson, a homeless man who panhandles at the end of the I-5 exit ramp where the young homeless man was killed. Jackson is skeptical that better services would be that effective. "With the services that Seattle provides, Seattle got more services than all those other places that I've been to."

At the same time, Jackson is glad the city now seems to be backing off on the sweeps. That's why he came here from neighboring Snohomish County — where he says the cops are quicker to crack down. As far as he is concerned, the camps should just be left alone.

"Regular citizens don't really want the homeless people around them; well, most of us don't want to be around regular citizens," he says. "So we can have our own little city or neighborhood, and they can have their own neighborhood, and we can meet up at the grocery store or something."

And those separate neighborhoods keep growing. Even on the green strip where the young man was killed last week, the tents are already back up.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Americans are seeing more homeless camps, especially in cities here on the West Coast with high housing prices. With the spread of the illegal camps, an argument has broken out about how tolerant cities should be. NPR's Martin Kaste has the story from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The argument over these camps got a lot more urgent here a couple of weeks ago because of something that happened along this section of I-5. At about 5 a.m., a car veered off the roadway and up onto the green strip and plowed straight into a cluster of tents. A young homeless man died. And Seattle's Mayor, Ed Murray, stopped by the scene a few hours later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ED MURRAY: It is obvious that we cannot allow people to stay in places that are not safe for them.

KASTE: The city has tried being more aggressive about clearing out illegal campsites, especially after five people were shot, two of them killed, in a notorious camp called the Jungle back in January. But the city's sweeps, as they're called, quickly ran into an angry backlash from homeless activists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Stand up for your rights.

KASTE: And this anger got a lot of sympathy from the members of Seattle's city council, such as socialist council member Kshama Sawant.

KSHAMA SAWANT: The city is spending literally millions of dollars on moving homeless people from one street corner to the next, increasing their hardship and not solving the problem.

KASTE: So now the city council may go in the opposite direction. It's considering giving campers more rights to stay where they are and even city services, such as garbage pickup.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK MILOSCIA: Seattle, frankly, needs adult supervision.

KASTE: People like Mark Miloscia think this is all getting way too tolerant. He's a Republican state senator running for state auditor. And a day after the death along the freeway, he called a press conference in a park near the Space Needle, using the homeless people there as a backdrop for the news cameras.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILOSCIA: This is lawlessness. I believe it will attract tens of thousands of people to our state, and our jungle's will get even worse.

KASTE: But does tolerating the camps really make them worse? Advocates for the homeless often push back against this question. Barbara Poppe is a prominent national expert. And she says the tolerate-camps-or-not dilemma will go away if cities do a better job understanding why people are out camping to begin with.

INTERAGENCY COUNCIL ON HOMELESSNESS BARBARA POPPE: The problem we have right now is that there isn't a real option offered for folks to be any place other than where they are. So if we move to a strategy that makes real offers of stable housing, what we will see is those individuals who have not yet accepted an offer of housing eventually will accept an offer of housing.

KASTE: Poppe says cities should move toward the new philosophy of housing first. That means offering permanent shelter with fewer barriers, for instance, dropping the requirement that people be sober. Other cities have had success with this, and Seattle may try it. Still, alongside Interstate 5, a panhandler named Tim Jackson says he doubts better services would be enough to get rid of these camps.

TIM JACKSON: Now, the people who really want to get off the streets out here in Seattle, they can get off the street. With the services that Seattle provides - Seattle got more services than all those other places that I've been to.

KASTE: At the same time, Jackson is glad that the city now seems to be backing off the sweeps. He says he moved here because Seattle is more permissive, and he thinks these camps should just be left alone.

JACKSON: Regular citizens don't really want the homeless people around them. Well, most of us don't want to be around regular citizens really. So we can have our own little, you know, city or neighborhood. They can have their neighborhood. And we can just meet up at the grocery store or something (laughter).

KASTE: And those separate neighborhoods keep growing. Even on the green strip where the young man was killed two weeks ago, the tents are already back. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.