Shouting Across the Empathy Gulf on Homelessness at City Hall

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 9.01.51 PMLast Friday, the council’s human services committee heard at length from a few groups that advocate for, and work to protect, Seattle residents who don’t have a permanent place to live.

These groups don’t have large, well-publicized meetings to air their grievances; they don’t have the ability to lure TV cameras with promises of rhetorical fireworks or a list of self-righteous grievances as long as your arm; and they don’t have the power and money and time to sit around on private social media sites fear-mongering, organizing petition campaigns, and riling up other wealthy, connected people to raise hell at City Hall.

But they did get a seat at the table Friday, and that made some homeowners angry.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 11.08.30 PM

Those homeowners had their say; but first, they had to wait their turn. And when they spoke at the end of the three-hour meeting, it was jarring. When housed people show up at meetings about the immediate, intimate, life-or-death problems facing people without a permanent roof over their heads, to complain that their concerns about (their own) public health and safety aren’t being heard, and that the city only listens to homeless people and their advocates, the disconnect is hard to miss. One could argue (I would) that the whole of city zoning policy is based on the desire of a vocal, connected minority to preserve single-family areas as they were before Seattle was urbanized. It’s true that Seattle is no longer the undisputed realm of the property-owning class (occasionally, the city even makes it marginally less awful for the half of us who rent here), but in what version of reality have the concerns of single-family homeowners ever been ignored?

Typically, the concerns expressed by homeowner activists like Cindy Pierce and Gretchen Taylor, two Magnolia homeowners whose Neighborhood Safety Alliance “about” pages emphasize how “giving” they both are, get voiced in an echo chamber of affirming voices. In those settings, as I’ve documented here again and again, activists feel comfortable talking candidly about their desire to ban RVs from the city, or give homeless people one-way tickets to anywhere else, or force them, somehow, to “accept” human services. At city hall, however, surrounded by advocates for homeless people they spend their (apparently ample) free time deriding, their words rang a bit more hollow.Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 10.14.25 AM

“We’ve got a major health and safety problem in this city. Needles. Human waste. Urine. Tripping over everything. That is not how we in the city should live. We’re not going to get tourists in the city, our income isn’t going to go up,” Magnolia homeowner Pierce told the council. “If these illegal encampments do not get cleaned up, we are going to continue to see messes around the city and this city is going to look like Casablanca, and you don’t want to see what that city looks like.”

Taylor added that as “a native Seattleite,” she was speaking out of “concern for health and safety issues” in the city, and that all she wanted was for “the law [to] be the same for everyone. Equal rights for all.” What she meant was not that everyone has a human right to shelter, but that people who are homeless should be held to the same standard of conduct as people who are housed, and that laws against parking more than 72 hours in one place, public urination, drinking, and other nuisance violations committed primarily by the homeless should be strictly enforced.Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 11.07.43 PM

The homeless advocates at the table told a slightly different story. They described the many complicated reasons that people in encampments, for example, don’t always want to sleep in a shelter, ranging from disabilities to anxiety disorders to the fact that they have belongings, or a partner, or a pet. (Most shelters don’t take couples, forcing those with partners to separate in exchange for a dry place to sleep).


“People make the choices that they make for reasons, and if you listen you can learn why, even if there were a significant amount of unused shelter capacity … we would still likely see people choosing to be outside,” the Defender Association’s Lisa Daugaard told council members. “They’re not choosing to be outside, necessarily, because they don’t know what the facts are, and they’re not necessarily choosing to be outside for bad reasons. Often, people are motivated by profoundly human reasons that resonate for all of us,” such as a desire for community, the human need for stability, or an aversion to living in crowded institutional settings, Daugaard said.

They talked about the fact that many people who end up in shelters for long periods don’t need services like drug treatment and help writing a resume so much as they need money to help them pay the rent.  They talked about the high cost of “permanent supportive housing” for high-needs people who will never be able to go out and rent on the open market, and how complicated those projects are to site, build, and operate. And they talked at great (perhaps excessive) length about so-called “tiny houses,” room-size structures that have electric light but no plumbing or outlets, and seem to be the temporary housing option of choice for some council members, like Sally Bagshaw, largely because they seem more “dignified” than tents. (One camp made up of these structures, which officials cited Friday, is called “Dignity Village.”)

They talked about racial inequities among the homeless population itself, about the need for health outreach to homeless people (rather than thinking of the homeless themselves as a health hazard to everyone else), about the people who are, as the Daugaard put it, “practically or actually unhousable” because they have criminal records or are active drug users.Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 11.08.15 PM

Breaking addiction isn’t a matter of willpower, the homeless advocates explained, and even people who continue to engage in unlawful behavior–the people who fall into the mental category of “bad” or “undeserving” or not “really” homeless, in the taxonomy of some neighborhood activists–have to sleep somewhere. “So if we don’t intentionally make housing and shelter and living accommodations for people who do engage in law violations, the default resolution of  that will be that those is that people will live in tents, in parks, on sidewalks on greenbelts, and in other unused public spaces,” Daugaard said. “And that is the worst possible policy solution, from everyone’s perspective.”

Tim Harris, head of Real Change, concluded by saying he was “more hopeful, actually, about how we’re dealing with homelessness than I’ve ever been,” because the city is finally connecting homelessness to issues like income inequality and the rising cost of housing for everyone, from people living in motels because they can’t pay for a full month’s rent to the “1,000 people walking around King County right now with [Section 8 housing] vouchers who can’t find anybody to rent to them,” to longtime homeowners who can no longer afford their tax bills.

I’m not as optimistic that everyone sees the connection, but it may be that, eventually, they’ll have to. As distinct as the issues facing longtime homeowners who worry about being priced out of their neighborhoods and those facing homeless individuals who worry that the city will confiscate their few remaining possessions during one of its infamous “cleanups” appear to be, they’re actually points on the same policy continuum, and the policies the city adopts that impact one flow downstream or upstream to impact every other point on that continuum. Your NextDoor complaint about needles outside an RV down the street impacts the homeless family in a tent under I-5, just as the mom in an overcrowded shelter who can’t get anyone to take her Section 8 voucher could the city to place services in your neighborhood even if you feel your part of town has already “accepted” too many desperate people.

However, it may take a while. As I wrote this late on Monday night, I noticed a new post on NextDoor Magnolia arguing that helping people who are homeless and addicted to drugs or alcohol merely coddles and enables them. “A drug addict or alcoholic, living in the street, is doing so as a consequence of their own actions,” the poster wrote. “Feeling the full brunt of their actions is well understood to be the only thing that leads to them recover.” A few minutes later, someone declaring herself a “full-blown NIMBY!” posted a lengthy screed against funding treatment beds “for those who will take the free ride for awhile with no real intention of staying clean.” Dozens more piled on. The distance between Daugaard’s world and the tidy fantasy of neighborhoods swept free of people with visible problems can seem vaster than ever.

4 thoughts on “Shouting Across the Empathy Gulf on Homelessness at City Hall”

  1. Erica said:

    >>These [homeless advocacy] groups don’t have large, well-publicized meetings to air their grievances; they don’t have the ability to lure TV cameras with promises of rhetorical fireworks or a list of self-righteous grievances as long as your arm; and they don’t have the power and money and time to sit around on private social media sites fear-mongering, organizing petition campaigns, and riling up other wealthy, connected people to raise hell at City Hall.

    –I’m not sure which homeless groups she’s talking about that don’t have a voice at City Hall. but I can think of a few that most definitely do have a voice, and these groups, not angry homeowners, are the ones setting the agenda. Groups like SHARE and Low Income Housing Institute can and do call up councilmembers and the mayor any time they want. And they usually get whatever they want: More money. More political indulgence. Less accountability. These groups get millions of dollars in city funding every year, but when you ask them what they do with it, you get no response. And the City refuses to make them talk. Meanwhile, the homeless crisis gets worse, and the best answer the City can come up with is: “Let’s throw more money at SHARE and LIHI.”

    By contrast, an individual homeowner, or a group of homeowners, is not able to make their voice heard in any way OTHER than by showing up at a Council meeting and shouting. Frustration builds up and eventually explodes at this angry and unproductive meetings.

    I’ve written about the accountability problem at City Hall extensively on my blog. Here’s just a taste:

    P.S. Michael Taylor-Judd, YOU are complicit in this problem. As a City official, you have consistently refused to hold SHARE and LIHI accountable for their failures.

  2. I have about ZERO sympathy for the opinions of the overly privileged homeowners on this issue… BUT let’s not kid ourselves that the advocates who were at the table the other day don’t have plenty of access to City Councilmembers and the Mayor’s Office, and don’t wield plenty of political influence when it comes to getting the budget dollars from the City that they want for their agencies — sometimes in direct opposition to what City staff or community advocates who support people who are homeless ask for.

Comments are closed.