By Erica C. Barnett
A new poll from the Greater Metro Chamber of Commerce, produced by EMC Research, reveals that many Seattle voters’ “top concern” has shifted from homelessness to crime, but fails to shed any light on the reasons behind the shift. whether this shift represents declining empathy toward people living on Seattle streets.
Overall, according to the poll of 700 registered Seattle voters, 57 percent of people named homelessness as one of the issues they were most “frustrated or concerned about,” followed by “crime/drugs/public safety” at 46 percent. Both categories declined slightly from last year, while “racial issues/policing/police brutality” and “taxes” ranked slightly higher as matters of public concern. Asked what changes would improve the “quality of life” in Seattle, “closing encampments in parks, on sidewalks,” and in public rights-of-way ranked number one on the list, with 79 percent of voters saying their lives would be improved by encampment removals.
“I think our voters are pretty sophisticated. This is a community that does not assume that all people experiencing homelessness are also committing crimes and does not conflate homelessness and criminal activity.”—Seattle Metro Chamber CEO Rachel Smith
During a media presentation on the poll results, Seattle Chamber CEO Rachel Smith said she believed voters are somewhat less concerned about homelessness because of “an all-hands-on-deck regional approach that has made a visible difference” in the number of tents on the street. As we’ve reported, Mayor Bruce Harrell has dramatically accelerated homeless encampment removals since taking office, and has proposed expanding the city’s homeless outreach and encampment removal team and making many temporary “cleanup” positions permanent.
“I think our voters are pretty sophisticated,” Smith continued. “This is a community that does not assume that all people experiencing homelessness are also committing crimes and does not conflate homelessness and criminal activity.” Andrew Thibault, an EMC partner, added that most of the voters in the survey identify as Democrats and progressives.
Like all the previous versions of this annual survey, the poll framed a question about homeless encampments in a misleading way that does not represent what the city actually offers unsheltered people during sweeps, nor the reasons people “refuse” shelter or services that may be unsuitable for their needs. The survey asked voters whether they would support the city “continu[ing] to close homeless encampments once people have been offered shelter and services, even if it means those who refuse help will be displaced.” Only 18 percent of respondents said they would oppose such a policy.
The problem is that this policy does not exist, nor can it be “continued.” In reality, the city has only “closed” two encampments—one at Woodland Park and another at the Ballard Commons, which remains fenced-off and inaccessible—by making individualized offers of shelter and services to encampment residents. Other than these exceptions, the city removes encampments the same way it always has—typically, by posting a notice two or three days in advance so people know they have to leave, giving encampment residents the option to take one of the handful of shelter beds typically available citywide on any night, and sweeping anyone who remains on site on the appointed day. That’s a far cry from “offering shelter and services” to people who, for whatever (presumably irrational) reason, “refuse” to take them.
As long as the question describes a far more ideal scenario than the one that actually exists, people who might oppose removals will likely continue supporting them—after all, who can blame the city for sweeping people who simply don’t want any help?
Voters, particularly Republicans and people living in North Seattle, said they felt less safe than they did last year and supported hiring more police; more than half also said they were “actively” thinking about leaving Seattle, largely because of crime. These question routinely get high positive responses, to the point that you might think bullets were routinely whizzing through the empty streets of Phinney Ridge and Laurelhurst, past empty houses abandoned by people fleeing the city.
Poll respondents also said they didn’t trust the Seattle City Council to reform the police department—an oddly worded question, given that the mayor, not the council, oversees SPD and is responsible for setting policy for department. There was no corresponding question about the mayor. Blaming the council for problems at the police department and other departments that are controlled by the mayor is a longstanding Seattle pastime—one that reflects a general misunderstanding about how city government works that is exacerbated by polls suggesting the council has more power than it does.
Voters continue to support the general idea of “more housing in my neighborhood”; however, as in previous years, the Chamber’s poll doesn’t push that question beyond “duplexes and triplexes” to include denser housing types that might also include affordable housing. As the Urbanist noted in its coverage, the Chamber has supported legislation to increase density further in single-family areas and Smith said the framing of the question wasn’t meant to indicate that triplexes should be the upper limit.
The poll includes a demographic breakdown of respondents that lumps all BIPOC people into a single “POC” category—a grouping necessitated, according to Thibault, by the fact that breaking the categories down further would lead to an excessive margin of error. According to the crosstabs provided by EMC, the “POC” group included 26 Black voters in all, an average of fewer than nine Black respondents for each of three broad geographic areas sampled in the poll.