The Confusion Surrounding Encampments

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Photo credit: HSDOnce again, our city is struggling with how to best respond to the very real crisis of unsheltered people living outdoors in unauthorized encampments. The “One Night Count” on January 29, an annual survey of the homeless population, is sure to further intensify the discussion as we wrestle with very conflicting opinions about what city government should or should not do to address this issue.

Some argue that living anywhere in a tent is a personal choice and a right. Even though it runs counter to all sorts of generally accepted policies, such as minimum standards of living for health and safety and zoning rules that separate residential areas from non-residential areas, this perspective is held by some. City government should firmly reject this perspective.

A more nuanced position—and more widely held—is that encampments must be accommodated as long as there is nowhere else for these individuals to live safely. While potentially attractive at first glance, this position must be considered alongside the very real public health and safety risks unauthorized encampments inherently create.

Earlier this week, the City Council was briefed on unauthorized encampments in public places such as parks, greenbelts, street and sidewalk right of way, and other public spaces. Here are some key facts gleaned from the briefing.

  • Since last November 2, the day Mayor Murray declared a homeless crisis emergency, the city has documented the existence of 134 unauthorized encampments; 32 had three or more tents and 102 had one or two tents.
  • Thirty-eight of these 134 encampments (28% of the total) were identified as having public health or safety concerns that prompted city clean-up efforts. These 38 sites were occupied by 184 people. Usually these concerns center on unsanitary conditions caused by human and food waste, exposed hypodermic needles, and other trash; physical danger from an adjacent roadway; rodent infestation; and serious crime incidents, such as homicide, assault, rape, and theft.
  • Social services (e.g., drug or alcohol treatment, transportation options, shelter, transitional housing, etc.) were offered to the people living at these 38 encampment sites.
  • Approximately 40% of the encampment residents accepted shelter or housing services and approximately 33% accepted other social services. (Some individuals may have accepted both shelter and other services.) The majority of encampment residents turned down the offers of help.

The city’s clean-up efforts follow protocols developed in 2008. You can read them here

City government will spend nearly $50 million on homeless services this year. Except for New York and Los Angeles, no other city in America spends more or provides more funding to reduce homelessness than Seattle. In addition, King County government will spend more than $23 million, some of it inside Seattle. Despite these funding levels, the need remains great. I am convinced that Seattle will not be able to fund its way out of this crisis alone; we need increased support from the State and Federal government.

Seattle is a very generous city. We have proven over and over again that we will spend money—tens of millions of dollars every year—to help the homeless and our most vulnerable neighbors. But that doesn’t mean we should allow someone to set up camp wherever they wish under conditions that can pose a health and safety risk for themselves and others.

I’m committed to continuing our humane response, but it must be pragmatic and focused on protecting all of our residents from harm—those living in encampments and the surrounding neighbors. City government must fulfill its obligation to protect public health and safety.

The city government’s proper response to unauthorized encampments should focus on three key elements: (1) deterring unauthorized encampments as they do not provide safe or appropriate living conditions, (2) caring for the individuals living in these encampments by providing access to shelter and social services, and (3) making certain the public health and safety risks are successfully addressed in order to prevent harm.

It is crucially important, however, that when the City cleans up an unauthorized encampment its offers of shelter and social services are real. I would like to see better tracking from the City on this question. Are individuals who accept shelter actually moved inside? And when individuals refuse offers for shelter or services, what reasons do they give for doing so? Knowing the answers to these questions will help us better tune our intervention systems to the complicated realities on the ground.

More broadly, city government should continue advancing the reforms Mayor Murray and Catherine Lester, director of the city’s Human Services Department, have described: more focus on achieving specific outcomes for homeless individuals, contracting for specific outcomes not just specific services, placing greater emphasis on the prevention of homelessness not just responding after it has occurred, and development of a standardized needs assessment tool so individuals can be provided with services appropriate to them.