Last Friday afternoon, after the KIRO report was broadcast, the city finally acted and the end-zone tent was removed. But, had this new right to camp law that my colleagues are advancing been in place that removal would have been blocked for a minimum of 48 hours, perhaps as long as a week or even longer, until we found another location for the camper(s) and complied with the onerous rules the law establishes.
This new law will increase public safety problems and make our neighborhoods less safe. The same night KIRO-TV broadcast their Interbay playfield report, a Good Samaritan was stabbed in the abdomen when he went to the aid of a woman who was being assaulted in a tent in Woodland Park. Witnesses described the suspect to police; he was later arrested. The Good Samaritan was taken to Harborview Medical Center. This isn’t an isolated incident. Living on the street or in our parks is dangerous.
The Elephant in the Room That’s Being Ignored
Read the proposed new camping legislation carefully. It contains a few key phrases that require the city government to allow camping on public property for at least 30 days per location. In addition, even when an encampment is in an unsafe or unsuitable location, the City cannot remove it until the City has provided 48 hours’ notice, and must offer the individuals alternative locations in which to camp.
This is the elephant in the room that’s not being discussed. The advocates of this proposed legislation believe people should be allowed to camp in tents and vehicles on public property for at least 30 days and more, if the City does not have an available stock of “adequate and accessible” long-term housing, and must allow persons who decline services and housing the right to camp in alternative locations, again for a minimum of 30 days in locations that are not “unsafe” or “unsuitable.”
Really? Forget homelessness for a moment. This new legal right to camp in the city cuts across decades of land use policy and zoning requirements designed to minimize use impacts. This new law sweeps those protections away and creates a high impact use—camping on public property as an individual right. For me, this is going too far.
A Better Solution
If this legislation is adopted by the City Council it won’t move one person to housing. It won’t address drug addiction or mental illness for anyone. And it certainly won’t clean up the piles of garbage we see around Seattle left by urban campers. (These piles of garbage are so contaminated and hazardous that we have trouble finding contractors to do the necessary cleanups.)
But this legislation does do one major thing quite well; it distracts us from measures that will make a difference for people experiencing homelessness. Those measures are called Pathways Home, a series of steps Mayor Murray has proposed to retool our response to homelessness and create increased efficiencies and effectiveness based on an in-depth analysis of what we are doing—or not doing—today.
Pathways Home is an integrated effort with King County, All Home, and United Way to move people from unsheltered living on the street to permanent homes. It is centered on evidence-based practices that have been proven to work in other cities. This is where we should be spending our time and energy. This is the complex work we should be focused on, not on a new law that perpetuates homelessness and makes our neighborhoods less safe.
The national experts who counseled the city on Pathways Home tell us that all of the unsheltered people in Seattle could be sheltered by the end of 2017. That’s a bold claim based on the experience of other cities, but it is certainly worth pursuing. Why wouldn’t we work hard and urgently to achieve this goal?
Some of my colleagues are working on amendments to the camping law. The suggested amendments I have seen so far don’t cure the core problems with the legislation. I will keep you posted as I continue to advocate for solutions that have been proven to actually end homelessness.
Here’s an interesting discussion of this legislation on the Seattle Growth Podcast.
Stay engaged. Make sure your voice is heard at City Hall regardless of your position on this legislation. Your opinion matters.