As Tents Proliferate, It’s Time to Figure Out What Comes Next

One of the most obvious sidewalk-level impacts of the COVID-19 epidemic, in Seattle as well as other West Coast cities, has been the proliferation of homeless encampments in public spaces. Prior to the epidemic, the encampment-clearing Navigation Team, aided by the police and the parks department, were removing about 100 encampments a month, 96 percent of them without providing any prior notice, outreach, or offers of shelter or services to the people living there. Since mid-March, the city reports that the Navigation Team has shifted its role and is now offering information about “expanded shelter resources,” testing referrals, and hygiene kits that include bars of soap—not terribly useful without a ready source of running water.

However, the team was still doing sweeps—which the city refers to, in language that removes humans from the equation, as “cleans”—through mid-March. After that, they moved to doing “litter picks,” another odd term that implies people living unsheltered are wantonly tossing trash about, when the reality is that only a handful of established encampments get trash bags and pickup from the city. In all the “site journals” the team produces during their operations, the “before clean” photos are zoomed-in, prurient—a bottle of pee, an extreme close-up of a piece of feces on a sidewalk, a tight crop on two needles sitting on a ledge. The “after clean” shots, in contrast, are zoomed out, territorial—they take in the entirety of an area, demonstrating the fruits of a job well done.

But you can’t deny the encampments. They’re everywhere, from Ballard to Highland Park to Beacon Hill. The city, county, and state have failed to provide housing for the thousands of homeless people living unsheltered, and the thousands more who spend their nights on shelter floors, in transitional motel spaces, or moving from couch to street to couch. That was before the epidemic. Now, they’ve failed to provide safe places for most of these people to go.

The tents, sprouting everywhere, are the fruits of that inaction. There simply is no “good” story to tell on housing or shelter right now, because so many people are unhoused, and because the shelters aren’t safe. The city of Seattle has created just 95 new spaces—half of them in tiny houses, half in shelter—for people to sleep, and “solved” the problem of overcrowded shelters by opening bigger spaces so that people can sleep head to toe, six feet apart. People are trying to survive an epidemic in conditions no elected official would want for their own family members—sharing air, bathrooms, and common areas at a time when the rest of us are ordered to stay at home and far away from other people.

The county has opened hundreds of hotel rooms, but thousands more are needed, and the city has resisted even discussing the idea. On Monday morning, city council member Teresa Mosqueda quizzed staffers from the City Budget Office about what the city is doing to provide individual spaces for homeless people to shelter in place; the answer was that the city was “focused on trying to provide additional space for our existing shelters” and that the county was “taking the lead on isolation and quarantine rooms,” which was not what Mosqueda asked about.

Meanwhile, the tents proliferate. And even if the city decides to follow the lead of the county, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities and find the money to put people in hotels, it’s unclear what happens next. It seems impossible, in this moment, to think of returning to the old system of endless sweeps—if nothing else, the city is now in a budget crisis and the Navigation Team costs more than $8 million a year—but no one at any governmental level has proposed an exit strategy for all these people, whose current living situation is untenable in the long run. Elected officials say we have to deal with the immediate crisis in front of us and worry about funding and housing options later. Advocates say there has to be a solution that doesn’t retraumatize people by returning them to chaotic, overcrowded shelters. Right now, we’re still in a middle of a crisis, but things are also on hold. Perhaps that creates some space to consider our priorities, what we owe to each other, and the consequences of doing things the way we’ve always done them.

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7 thoughts on “As Tents Proliferate, It’s Time to Figure Out What Comes Next”

  1. Steve Willie, the massive explosion of homelessness has already happened, and will keep happening due to the inequalities in our system that keep a smaller number of people doing well, and a larger number constantly slipping closer and closer to homelessness. Welcome to late-stage Capitalism.

    1. Close inspection of both sentences you have written reveals no recommendations about how to solve the problem. So what are you recommending? (second request).

    2. Capitalism is pretty much the same all over the US but rates of homelessness are far different. One clear difference between cities is the price of housing and that correlates, at least in the cities with much of the worst rates of homelessness, the West Coast cities, with restrictive zoning policies that leave very little land available for anything except single family houses. IMO in the long run reforming zoning to permit much more housing would do more than anything else to decrease homelessness. In the short run other measures are needed, such as emergency housing, but that is treating symptoms, not the underlying cause.

      1. I agree with reforming zoning as a partial solution. This is also supported by Conor Dougherty’s new book: “Golden Gates”. Perhaps you have already seen it. I think the book is well-written and well-researched, but ultimately misses the mark by a wide margin. I can easily list ten things which will work better than reforming zoning. When I first moved to the Puget Sound Region 23 years ago, I determined right away that I would never be able to afford to live anywhere near Seattle, so I went elsewhere. By the way, that is literally part of the solution: go-somewhere-else. I did it and so can anyone else. Conor Dougherty seems to think that it is some kind of basic human right to live right inside a major city….not even close to being true.

  2. I wish we could try an experiment which takes all these “solutions” to homelessness and implements them to the maximum extent possible without any spending limits. Give a free hotel room to everyone living in a tent. etc. Do this for some agreed time period, lets say two years. After two years, what would we find? We would find that these fake solutions have resulted in a massive explosion of homelessness. Have these homeless writers ever taken a course in economics which includes an actual study of economics? They appear to have neglected to correctly define and identify the actual causes. My report correctly identifies the cause but you won’t like it. I offer it anyways to those who request it:

  3. The city could solve this problem if it wanted to, but it chooses not to.

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