Homeless people should be allowed to camp in public spaces until there is adequate housing for them. People who are living in tents should not be chased from one location to another when there is nowhere for them to legally stay. Their belongings should not be trashed nor their rights infringed simply because they are poor and desperate.
No one wants to see homeless people living outside, but they do. The City spends $50 million per year to provide services and housing, but it’s not enough; people are still living outside. The Mayor’s new “Pathways Home” plan will prioritize housing for unsheltered people, but even it if works it will take at least a year to make a difference. Meanwhile, people are living outside.
People living in homeless encampments are refugees, as surely as if they were displaced by an earthquake or a hurricane. They have been made wretched by the failure of our economic system. Rents in Seattle were up 9.7% this year, and are expected to rise 6.7% next year. Wages have not kept pace. The number of unsheltered homeless people in King County jumped 19% from 2015 to 2016, to 4,505, of whom about 3,000 are in Seattle. People who are of no use to the economic system are simply ejected, to live or die as they may.
Do we want refugees living in our parks? No. Do we have a duty to host them until they have somewhere else to go? Yes.
The City Council is considering a bill created by the ACLU that would normalize homeless encampments by making them legal on public land, including in parks throughout the city. I have read messages opposing this bill which complain that it “would not provide housing,” or “does nothing to address the real underlying issues the city’s homeless residents face,” or “won’t address drug addiction or mental health issues for anyone.”
This is true. Nobody has ever said that this bill would accomplish those things. That’s not what this bill is for. The bill is to protect homeless people from being “swept” from their camps without adequate notice, when they have nowhere else to go. The bill would require the City to preserve people’s property and to offer them alternative places to stay, if any such places are available.
And if no alternatives are available, then it would leave people where they are. That’s the bitter pill. We as a community would be forced to confront our failure. Rather than sending the police and a garbage truck to sweep away the problem, we would be forced to acknowledge that people are living outside – in poverty, in filth, and in danger. We would be forced to acknowledge that these people are part of our community, and that they deserve to live here just as much as we do.
This disaster is of our own making. Unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, the economic catastrophe we are experiencing is subject to our control. The enormous wealth flowing into Seattle has destroyed our housing market, making it difficult or impossible for people of normal means to live here, and casting thousands into the street. The government – deprived of adequate public funding and subservient to private money – is expediting the destruction by adopting libertarian development policies which destroy affordable housing and promote gentrification.
The rich should pay for the consequences of their increasing wealth, but we don’t do that here. Our absurd and regressive tax structure prevents adequate funding of education, mental-health services, and public housing. The costs of growth are shifted to the poor and the middle class: The poor live on the streets, and people of the middle class are expected to welcome refugees in the public parks.
I have been surprised that my colleagues in the neighborhoods are willing to accept the characterization of homeless people as a threat to public safety (as argued most prominently by Councilmember Tim Burgess). Homeless people are sick and poor. They are victims of a system that has no use for them, and which provides no compassionate way to deal with their problems. To shove them out of sight under a freeway overpass and treat them like criminals is neither sustainable nor humane.
We must look to the ultimate cause of the disaster. Unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, homelessness is not an act of God or a phenomenon of nature. People are homeless because the concentrated wealth of a new oligarchy is calling the shots in our city and in our society. That must end, and we must work to end it.
But now, in the midst of the emergency, we – the white, middle class homeowners of Seattle – must stand with the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick, the most desperate among us. We must be willing to tolerate unconventional measures to relieve the worst consequences of the economic disaster that threatens us all. If this were the aftermath of an earthquake or a hurricane, we would welcome the refugees in our parks and public places, and we would help them. The most wretched victims of our economic system deserve no less than that.