Last Monday I announced my priorities for the year, highlighting the need to provide safe shelter for people in our city who are homeless and ensuring our streets and neighborhoods are safe. The events and meetings I’ve attended this week have confirmed why this commitment is critical to our city.
In November, our Mayor and the King County Executive declared a state of emergency to respond to the growing crisis summarized as “homelessness.” As of last year’s One Night Count there were 3,772 people without permanent roofs over their heads in King County. Left without permanent housing, people have resorted to sleeping on the streets, in doorways, tents, cars, RVs, shelters and encampments.
In 2015, 66 people died while living on our streets. This is tragic on so many fronts. In a city as wealthy as we are, we are honor-bound to find better, more reliable and more effective solutions to leaving individuals and families to fend for themselves.
However, while we work towards creating more housing solutions, we also must give neighborhoods the support they need.
This past Wednesday evening, I attended a community meeting in Magnolia organized by a group called the Neighborhood Safety Alliance (NSA). Hundreds of people attended. The leaders who came from Magnolia, Queen Anne, Ballard, Fremont and Lake City spoke with a powerful voice about their concerns with the growing numbers of parked RVs in their neighborhoods, along with the plethora of discarded hypodermic needles, obvious drug sales from the RVs, piles of garbage, and human waste on the streets and sidewalks. This group attributed increased burglaries, car prowls and break-ins to the people living in the RVs parked in their neighborhoods.
I heard the concerns of this group loud and clear, and emphasized to the crowd that I have dual priorities: first to care for people who are homeless and need our help, and second to keep every neighborhood clean and safe from crime. We have had enough conversations about this issue and we know what we need to do to solve these problems: We need to make space for people living in our city and county, we need to clean up needles and trash on our streets, and we need to arrest people who pose a threat to public safety.
By the next morning I held conversations with the Mayor’s Office, our police, our Human Services Department and the County Executive’s office. Action is being taken.
Two new managed encampments were opened in November, and plans are now afoot to open another and at least two managed spaces for campers, cars and RVs. This car/RV program is being modeled after effective programs in Eugene, Oregon and Kitsap County.
The Mayor agreed to enter into a special contract with a jobs program to clean up garbage and needles in designated areas around the city.
On Friday January 8, my office staff and I visited Tent City 5 at Interbay (TC5) to see how it was working. I was deeply impressed by the kind and thoughtful residents, advocates, and leaders we met there.
TC5 is organized by SHARE/WHEEL, a local non-profit advocating for the safety and survival of our region’s homeless individuals. The encampment houses up to 60 homeless people, including men, women and children in a mix of partner, individual, family, and group tents. People with pets are welcome.
TC5 is self-governed. Residents use the term “Organic Democracy” to describe their organizing structure. Every two weeks, five individuals are elected to serve on the executive committee, which provides leadership on a number of issues the encampment addresses. They provide 24-hour security for the encampment. Residents pick up litter around the neighborhood, and provide eyes on the ground in their security walks, reporting any illegal activity to the Seattle Police Department. TC5 is a safe, organized community that empowers each resident to get back on their feet as well as look out for their neighbors.
At TC5 there is a community tent, a kitchen tent, running water and portable toilets, and a space where case managers from the Low Income Housing Institute can meet with and work with the residents three days each week. They help with permanent housing and job searches. Residents commit to following a code of conduct which includes keeping TC5 a drug and alcohol free zone, prohibiting violence and degrading ethnic, racist, sexist or homophobic remarks, and respecting each other’s privacy. I was struck by the fact that few other apartments or communal situations have similar rules in place.
Businesses and neighbors around TC5 have become seriously neighborly. The business across the street has offered its forklift to help move lumber and supplies; the HD Fowler store donated lumber for the platforms that provide support off the ground for tents; the Starbucks on Dravus conducted a blanket drive for residents of TC5, collecting hundreds of blankets and offering gallons of coffee to warm up the recipients; Robert from the Magnolia Hardware Store donated sleeping cots. One of the sweetest stories we heard was about a woman named Chris who lives near TC5 and earns her living as a seamstress. On Christmas Eve she came to TC5 and offered her professional services, fixing zippers, repairing jackets and more. She told her new friends that they gave her a purpose.
Please check out TC5’s website should you choose to donate supplies or resources. One more thing the City should do is connect the kitchen and community tent with electricity so people can charge their phones and get some much-needed light. Batteries only go so far.
Clearly, permanent housing and jobs are the long-term solution to homelessness; however in the short term we must create safe environments such as TC5 for people whether they live in tents or in their cars/RVs. My goal in the coming weeks is to work with the Mayor and Executive to expand the number of facilities where people can be safe, warm, and in community.