1. If you’re concerned about homelessness and think that Governor Jay Inslee has been a bit too distracted by electric cars or solar panels or running a quixotic campaign for president to pay the issue proper attention, wait until you meet your governor pro tem, Lieutenant Gov. Cyrus Habib. Habib, who is otherwise best known for breaking ties in the state Senate, serves as governor when Inslee is out of the state. Last Friday, when Inslee “visiting with his friends and family in Iowa,” Habib delivered a coruscating keynote (“on behalf of all 7 million residents of Washington State,” he joked) at the 40th anniversary fundraiser for the Downtown Emergency Services Center.
First, Habib dismissed the notion, popular among “some of our most vocal neighbors here in Seattle,” that it matters where homeless people in the city originally came from (even though, as he noted, more than 80 percent of the people surveyed as part of last year’s one-night homeless count said their last address before becoming homeless was in King County. “My parents came from Tehran. I was born in Baltimore. This city is full of people whose last known residence was not in King County,” Habib said. “How is what you’re saying any different from the intolerance that the president shows to asylum seekers? How can you say that about Trump, and then turn around and blame someone for coming from Wichita out of desperation? It makes no sense.”
According to the Navigation Team’s weekly reports, the team removed 39 encampments in the last month. Of those, 34 were deemed “hazardous” or an “obstruction,” and were therefore exempt from the requirements that would ordinarily apply to encampment removals, including the offer of an alternative place to sleep, notification requirements, and an opportunity to access services before being forced to move along.
Similarly, Habib said, people often dismiss their neighbors experiencing homelessness by saying they’re “all drug addicts”—another dehumanizing distinction that puts people with the disease of addiction outside the bounds of what “upstanding citizens” should have to care about. “I truly think that for most people, this comes from a place of fear,” said Habib, who is blind—fear that if things don’t go according to plan, the person condemning and othering homeless people might end up homeless one day herself.
“You know, there was a time before about three generations ago when, if you were blind, there was a good chance that you would be homeless and begging. I think about, what if everyone were blind? But what if everyone were suffering from a substance abuse disorder? Surely the way to approach and to encounter that person is not with less empathy. It’s certainly not to put them on a prison island somewhere.”
2. I had Habib’s words about fear in my head as I sat down on the bleachers at District 5 city council member Debora Juarez’s “public safety town hall” at the Bitter Lake Community Center Monday night—fearing, myself, that the meeting would turn into a reprise of the awful Ballard town hall last year, where an angry mob shouted obscenities at a panel assembled to discuss the proposed employee hours tax last year. The mood was reassuringly polite and respectful, but the questions—aimed at a panel that included Juarez, Mayor Jenny Durkan, assistant SPD chief Eric Greening, and SPD North Precinct Captain Eric Sano—were based on the same misconceptions Habib referred to in his remarks on Friday: Why can’t police just remove all unsheltered homeless people from their locations without notice or due process? Why can’t the city hire 300 more police officers immediately? What can be done with people who refuse to go into shelter or treatment?
Durkan made clear that one of the top priorities for her administration, when it comes to responding to neighborhood complaints about encampments, is to remove encampments in parks and other places where the city has deemed them to be inherent obstructions, and to ensure that they don’t return. If the city determines that an encampment represents an obstruction or immediate hazard, the Navigation Team, which conducts the removals, is not required to provide outreach, referrals to shelter or services, or any prior notice before removing people’s tents and other belongings from a location.
“This city is full of people whose last known residence was not in King County,” Habib said. “How is what you’re saying any different from the intolerance that the president shows to asylum seekers? How can you say that about Trump, and then turn around and blame someone for coming from Wichita out of desperation?”
Durkan said the city is using a new strategy called “clean and hold,” in which “we move the encampment out [and] we hold it so that people don’t return. … You will start seeing that happen in more places in the city.”
Later, in response to a question about how the city’s Navigation Team will ensure that camps they remove don’t come back, Durkan elaborated. “There are some encampments or single tents that, if they’re obstructions to the roadway, they can be cleared immediately, and when you call, they will be treated differently than encampments” whose residents must receive a minimum of 72 hours’ notice before the city can start hauling away tents and belongings. In practice, the Navigation Team gives the residents of encampments deemed to be “hazardous” or “obstructions” 30 minutes’ notice before clearing them out, although they are not required to do so.
Second, Durkan said, the Navigation Team, whose budget the city nearly doubled last year, is being aggressive about posting notices in places with persistent encampments and patrolling those areas to make sure people don’t come back. “If you look on the waterfront and at Sixth and James, there are a couple of locations where what we’ve done is, once we clear it, if we post [no camping signs] then… as people start to set up, we say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t set up here. Can we help you get some services?” Durkan said.
According to the Navigation Team’s weekly reports, the team removed 39 encampments in the last month. Of those, 34 were deemed to be “hazardous” or an “obstruction,” and were therefore exempt from the requirements that would ordinarily apply to encampment removals, which are outlined in detail here.