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Capitol Hill Community Post | Tent encampments are here to stay unless …

From Tim Burgess — Seattle Forward, former City Council President and Interim Mayor
The tents, dilapidated vehicles, and piles of trash you see in almost every Seattle neighborhood have become an enduring fixture. So has the human suffering.

We should quickly prioritize addressing these tent encampments and follow the lead of other cities that have successfully tackled this issue. Since 2015, when the mayor declared a homelessness emergency, we have spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars — and there are success stories to tell — but, tragically, there is no comprehensive plan to remove these illegal encampments or to help those living in them. Not now. Not any time this year or next. Not in five years. They are essentially permanent.

That’s because the City Council’s preferred approach has been one of tolerance and accommodation, evidenced by their elimination last fall, despite Mayor Jenny Durkan’s strong objection, of the Navigation Teams — outreach workers paired with police officers — that successfully nudged people in encampments to accept shelter and social services.

The City Council’s laissez faire approach furthers the terrible damage of substance abuse and mental health disorders for the majority of encampment dwellers. It’s also an approach that denies the public access to parks, sidewalks, and greenspaces. It enables criminal behavior that harms neighbors, businesses, and other campers. It creates piles of trash and unsanitary conditions. It harms our tourism and hospitality industry, a key jobs-producing component of Seattle’s eventual economic recovery. It’s appallingly misguided, worsened by the Council’s convoluted and confusing rules and regulations designed to prevent, or at least delay, the removal of any encampment.

There is a much better, more humane way forward.

Let’s implement a specific plan that is both compassionate in meeting urgent human needs and fulfills city government’s public health and safety obligations. A plan designed to remove encampments and prevent their return, to restore access to our parks and public spaces for everyone’s enjoyment, to help campers by providing enhanced substance abuse and mental health services. A plan that no longer ignores or excuses the criminal behavior — assault, burglary of homes, businesses and cars, arson, theft — of some unsheltered individuals that has created chaos in parts of the city and shattered confidence in the city government.

Look at the facts.

Our parks, sidewalks, streets, freeway rights-of-way, and greenspaces have become “home” to an estimated 3,738 individuals, almost one-half (46%) of Seattle’s total homeless population, according to the latest (January 2020) point-in-time count. Most of the unsheltered population reports living with mental health or substance abuse challenges, often both.

It’s clear we need a new, more purposeful approach or the encampments will continue to grow in number. It’s important we move quickly to prepare for better weather and the decline of the COVID-19 pandemic when park usage will soar.

Here are some of the key elements this new plan should include.

The plan should meet the medical needs of campers — a major cause of their unsheltered living — by providing truly on-demand treatment for those with substance abuse disorder or mental health challenges. “On demand” means available the moment someone acknowledges a need for help: not next week or next month, not placement on a waiting list, but right now. Treatment services — both inpatient and outpatient options — should follow the science of what works best based on rigorous, independent, published evaluations.

The plan should recognize that these services won’t provide a quick cure, yet a long-term commitment to a patient’s recovery is essential. These services should use whatever state and county government funding is available but recognize that repurposed city funding will be needed to serve the target population effectively. We should stop waiting for another level of government to step up; the cost of inaction is devastating.

The plan should speed up Mayor Durkan’s surge strategy, including this week’s announcement of a public-private partnership by Councilmember Andrew Lewis, to accelerate the creation of more enhanced shelter capacity, tiny houses and rented hotel rooms to quickly move unsheltered people into safer, cleaner, warmer places.

Importantly, the plan must require written service plans for each unsheltered individual, a key success element endorsed by national experts and a dramatic shift from Seattle’s highly informal ad hoc outreach approach. The city recently funded additional outreach services but did not specify performance outcomes, allowing a dozen or so nonprofit organizations to use their own methodologies and success criteria. The plan should divide the city into service regions so outreach teams have a specific geographic area of responsibility, a change that will significantly increase accountability.

The plan should use a focused deterrenceproblem-solving approach to criminal behavior, employing a range of interventions including arrest and prosecution, if necessary. This is not, as some claim, “the criminalization of homelessness.” It’s a considered response to specific people who are engaged in destructive, ongoing acts of violence or persistent criminal behaviors that significantly harms others, including other unsheltered persons. It is behavior focused, not homelessness focused.

The plan should recommit city government to the new but not yet operational Regional Homeless Authority, acknowledging that homelessness and encampments are a regional problem that requires a shared response with high accountability measures and regular public progress reports.

The plan should require either acceptance of services — such as shelter, temporary housing, and treatment services — or removal, strongly encouraging people to choose but not allowing continued camping.

And, finally, the plan should acknowledge the importance of permanent, low barrier supportive housing — a “housing first” approach — because so many of the unsheltered are chronically homeless with serious addiction and mental health needs. To reestablish their lives, they need a safe, warm and welcoming place with supportive health and social services.

This new plan will be expensive — primarily because of the need to significantly increase access to treatment services — but it’s doable with a reallocation of existing city funds. But it won’t be as expensive as continuing to do nothing. However, it will require a fierce determination to achieve the desired outcomes and to resist the many competing interests that have crippled the city’s ability to successfully address the encampments.

Is this all a pie-in-the-sky fantasy? Could we actually serve our unsheltered and chronically homeless population better? The answer is absolutely “yes” because other cities have already done it. Look at Bakersfield-Kern County, California. Or Bergen County, New Jersey. Or Abilene, Texas. Each of these jurisdictions — along with more than 75 others across the country — joined Community Solutions, a national nonprofit organization, and rigorously followed their step-by-step process to reduce the unsheltered homeless population. It is a successful model Seattle should follow, and quickly.

A plan like this can eliminate unsafe encampments and start hundreds of individuals on a path to safe, stable, and healthier lives. Wouldn’t that be worth it?


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ISeeU
ISeeU
2 months ago

Someone’s gearing up for a mayoral run.

Aaron Brethorst
Aaron Brethorst
2 months ago
Reply to  ISeeU

‘We must go forward, not backwards! Up, not down! Spinning round and round until our feet break free from the shackles of cruel gravity!’

Someone wake me when Tim offers more than bland platitudes.

Sergey Solyanik
Sergey Solyanik
2 months ago

Right, Tim, didn’t you promise 300-500k from your gun tax a few years ago? Clearly you have massive problems with both basic arithmetic and economics, why would we care about your other plans?

JCW
JCW
2 months ago

Refreshing. If this is a soft launch for a mayoral run I’m here for it.

RWK
RWK
2 months ago
Reply to  JCW

Agree! Tim’s proposals make alot of sense, and are a refreshing change from the “same old, same old” approach by our City Council, which has resulted in absolutely no improvement in our homeless problem, despite spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

dan
dan
2 months ago
Reply to  JCW

Agreed!

Will
Will
2 months ago

This is the way…
Our council still pushes for legalized injection sites and safe zones for dealers who supply this multi-million $ drug market. They feed the homeless misery, and bolster the crimes necessary to finance it.
Many of these people need court mandated, treatment, before they can begin to regain their humanity.

Stevo
Stevo
2 months ago

We clearly have a problem with homelessness in Seattle, and I appreciate the thoughtfulness in Tim Burgess’ opinion piece. It is thought provoking and solutions-oriented. The three earlier comments don’t provide anything constructive. Do you earlier commenters have any constructive input, or just want to attack the writer?

S. Martin
S. Martin
2 months ago

He did have some ideas that would go away from what we are doing now which is an absolute disaster. Just because the current city council members say they care about people, doesn’t make them competent.

UghWhy
UghWhy
2 months ago

This sounds like a ton of nothing new. Punitive measures as a condition of housing, temporary housing etc. is what we have today. There’s still massive amounts of fallout and we’re right back to the same problem. Give people permanent housing without conditions and access to services. Why are we over complicating it with guardrails that we already know do not work.

R U Serious?
R U Serious?
2 months ago
Reply to  UghWhy

maybe because letting people into the housing with no conditions results in predictable damage to said housing that renders it unusable and wastes scarce resources, essentially throwing them into the unfillable black hole where a junkie’s humanity used to be?

No R U SERIOUS??
No R U SERIOUS??
2 months ago
Reply to  R U Serious?

Housing first policies have been tried in various locations (Salt Lake City, Finland are examples) and it is the quickest and easiest way to get people back on their feet. Will we provide housing to someone who might make a mess? Probably. But we shouldn’t close off a valuable life line to many people who need it just because a few individuals may do drugs or have a mental illness.

UghWhy
UghWhy
2 months ago

@No RU. Thank you! I hadn’t heard of the SLC and Finland examples. Going to check those out now.

Pete graves
Pete graves
2 months ago

SLC had conditions. Stop lying to push your agenda.

Michael E Stein
Michael E Stein
2 months ago
Reply to  UghWhy

Go ahead

Nathan
Nathan
2 months ago

I like Tim’s approach. It’s not an either/or equation; we can and we need to do both.

CapHill worker
CapHill worker
2 months ago

I like the message. Tim is an asset to Seattle and Cap Hill in my opinion. He was around and helped out quite a bit in the early days when Pike Pine was an empty, footnote of Broadway.

A. J.
A. J.
2 months ago

Ohhhh, so the disbanding of the navigation team is why we have encampments now, unlike four months ago when there were none. So your solution is to make people accept shelter or treatment services (shelters and treatments we don’t have), or what, Tim? Arrest people and put them in our covid ravaged jails for not being able to afford a place to live? Sweep the camps so that people are more desperate when they move to a different encampment three blocks away? Don’t criticize without offering actual realistic solutions. You were on city council for 10 years, during which time our housing crisis went from being bad to worse. Placing blame on the people trying to solve the crisis you helped create is laughable.

You should be ashamed at continuing to offer the same failed solutions to the same crisis you neglected when you were COUNCIL PRESIDENT (and even Mayor, briefly). Why on earth would we trust you to have solutions now when you failed us so terribly already?

kurt
kurt
2 months ago
Reply to  A. J.

You got any ideas? I’d like to hear them.

Sara
Sara
2 months ago

Maybe Tim feels guilty for passing one of the least restrictive pieces of short term rental legislation of any major city in the nation allowing two and in some cases three short term rentals taking much needed housing and long term rentals off the market. He is a major factor in the lack of housing in Seattle and the passing of this legislation in 2017 correlates directly to the rising amount of encampments. Tim’s ‘ideas’ are all filtered through his PAC which is heavily funded by big tech and other wealthy folks associated with the chamber of commerce who refuse to acknowledge the consequences of their actions over the last decade. Hard pass.

hayley b
hayley b
2 months ago

here’s what jumped out to me: “the plan should acknowledge the importance of permanent, low barrier supportive housing” – what is the good of acknowledging the importance of something, if that something doesn’t exist at the scale needed for the problem? you can treat people all you want–if they don’t have anywhere to go afterwards, you’re back where you started. without significant investment in housing, this “plan” (if it can be called such–and as a planner, i’m afraid it can be, because it’s all aspiration like so many of our plans) will be worthless.
housing first, indeed.

J.J.
J.J.
2 months ago

We should stop waiting for another level of government to step up; the cost of inaction is devastating.

Yes!

The Ghostt Of Capitol Hill
The Ghostt Of Capitol Hill
2 months ago

this sucks.. nobody can just wait till the pandemic starts to turn around until they start the slash and burn of poor people? our society is so gross. “gotta get back to normal” is the most disgusting vain bs during an ongoing and devastating global crisis. Just be quiet and wait. nothing they do will help any of the people on the streets it will just serve to high five all the hateful losers i see all the time in the comments.

Ok, do it
Ok, do it
2 months ago

Ok, house some unhoused people.

The Ghostt Of Capitol Hill
The Ghostt Of Capitol Hill
2 months ago
Reply to  Ok, do it

No need theres tons of public park land totally available in this time of need people seem to naturally flock to it hmmm must be a mystery why people seem to find open land to use when they need it.

Ok, do it
Ok, do it
2 months ago

So you haven’t asked an unhoused person to enjoy your warmer and more secure stable structure?

The Ghostt Of Capitol Hill
The Ghostt Of Capitol Hill
2 months ago
Reply to  Ok, do it

Nope that would be pretty dumb and prolly just suggested in jest by someone that is trying to make some dumb point about “derp derp let them stay with you then” to change the subject away from the fact that people congregate there for a REASON and it’s because its public land that’s available!

Life…will..find a way.. until the nimby’s whine reaches the east precinct and the goons come to club and scatter them. The circle of life in america.

JCW
JCW
2 months ago

Expecting people to take a modicum of responsibility for their own lives is not hateful. Not wanting public spaces and the neighborhood you live in to become festering garbage pit is not hateful. Being disgusted by the continued vandalism, break ins, and public drug use throughout CH not hateful.

If all those “compassionate” mutual aid folks out there cared one lick for the people they claim to be supporting, they’d embrace the idea that one’s housing status should not excuse uncivil/illegal behavior and work to prevent it. To be the good neighbors they’re screaming at the rest of us to accept them as. But they don’t. They’re using the very people they claim to be helping to further their crusade against SPD.

The Ghostt Of Capitol Hill
The Ghostt Of Capitol Hill
2 months ago
Reply to  JCW

You cannot say that someone in a park with a tent is better off having to spend an entire day or more moving all their crap to another location to just set up and do the entire thing over again. This is not helpful and when you mix in the police state it’s truly disgusting.

JCW
JCW
2 months ago

Frankly, if having to continually move prompts someone in that situation to eventually accept the help that is offered, then yes they’re better off. But that’s a secondary issue…the point I made above is that one can be sympathetic to the plight of those experiencing homelessness and still find the violence, drug use, vandalism, and litter unacceptable. Homeless or not, these are adults, not children, and I choose to view them as such. What about you?

The Ghostt Of Capitol Hill
The Ghostt Of Capitol Hill
2 months ago
Reply to  JCW

This world doesn’t exist for you and there are many others living in it and sometimes those people have to live in a park for a while and it sucks. The violence and drugs and all that.. it’s terrible. I hate seeing it when I walk to QFC too.

You’re not going to “hold people accountable” by cracking down on them theres no further down some people can get and they’re not going to just rebound and become a CEO livin the ol’ dream.

Poverty in our society is a huge problem.

When the great depression happened they created social welfare programs.

When Covid19 happened we called the cops to beat up poor people and had 0 patience for our parks being dirty for a few months.

These complaining nimby people want their lily white world to be pristine even during a global crisis how vain and selfish can this society get?

And the reason you need to stand back and stand by is because politicians and the police listen to you and are going to do these terrible things to real human beings that are at the end of their rope living in a park.

However, trying another approach like.. idk.. helping people either directly or just leaving them alone because sweeping them isn’t helping.. Just offends so many housed and fed individuals behind computer screens.. why?

JimT
JimT
2 months ago

Wake up!vote in Marxism it’s all yours. Democrats bringing Washington State to it’s knees.

LinkRider
LinkRider
2 months ago

This is intriguing. I hadn’t heard of individualized service plans, but that makes a lot of sense, and having a waiting period to get in to treatment definitely seems broken. I hope he’ll give some longer interviews about the exact details.

It’s interesting to envision a future where no more encampments are permitted because so much housing and shelter space has been created. How realistic is this vision?

Jennifer
Jennifer
1 month ago

Everything about this article is dripping in privilege. Spaces are for everyone to enjoy not just people who do not struggle with metal health and addiction problems. Some of your plan definitely violates 8th and 14th amendments rights as well. Back to the planning board.