Debate turns in tents

Advocates and the City Council go head-to-head over tent cities.

Two weeks after they established a tent city on a piece of city-owned land along 15th Avenue South, just below the Jefferson Park Reservoir, about 50 homeless persons were on the move again.

The preparations for last Thursday's "exodus" were casual: Tent city residents milled around, talking, eating lunch, and joking with each other as the set time approached for their march back to the Jungle, a stretch of vacant public property on Beacon Hill that has been the site of homeless encampments over the last several years. One group seemed slightly apprehensive when a policewoman approached, although it turned out she just wanted to thank them for a previous gift of strawberries. Two members of a television news crew taking practice swings with a golf club in the Jefferson Park grass were approached by two campers who mischievously presented them with a pair of golf balls.

But the walk back to the Jungle wasn't simply symbolic. Asked whether the tent city would simply be re-established there or its residents would scatter, tent city participant Stan Burruss replied: "I can't answer you—I truly can't. And the fact that I can't is the story."

The marchers were met at the Jungle by about 20 police officers and threatened with arrest if they set up tents. Police cars tailed the SHARE/WHEEL vehicles around the city for the rest of the day. "They were committed to not having anything go up yesterday, but they can't do that every day," one organizer commented on Friday.

Although Mayor Paul Schell has pledged to boost by $500,000 the city's $7.3 million budget for programs for the homeless, advocates say the numbers that matter are these: On any given night, Seattle has 2,300 shelter beds for 5,000 homeless residents. (The term "beds" encompasses anything from an actual bed to a floor mat or cot to merely a place on the floor inside a building.) SHARE/WHEEL, organizations composed of homeless and formerly homeless men and women, has asked the city to consider allowing organized encampments like their tent city—a self-governed community with sanitary facilities whose residents set rules and provide security.

The city's own shelter system seems to acknowledge the necessity of camping. Several emergency shelters (including one in the lobby of the Municipal Building) are open during winter months, but a large portion of the homeless population is left to fend for itself during warmer weather. Even with this tacit endorsement of camping as part of the homeless housing situation, the city has officially avoided a tolerance policy. The year-old Parks Exclusion ordinance was partially aimed at giving police a tool to eject campers from public parks. The city has swept the Jungle on a roughly annual basis, dismantling structures and clearing trash. "For all those public health and safety reasons, we can't turn the other way, as some would have us do," Deputy Mayor Tom Byers told the City Council at a June 22 briefing.

Although a majority of council members seem content to maintain the city's current policy, there are a few supporters of allowing encampments. "If we can have something that's safe and sanitary and self-managed on a temporary basis, that's something that could at least be explored," says council member Nick Licata. Encampments have been tried in other cities with mixed results, says Byers.

Advocates like Burruss say the debate in City Hall gets diverted to policy discussions, when homeless people are more concerned about where they're going to sleep tonight. The council's discussion bore out his observation: Council member Martha Choe expressed her frustration over Seattle's unfair share of the costs associated with homelessness. "We are continuing to subsidize the county's and suburban cities' housing and homeless issues," Choe told her colleagues. "Do we say 'enough'?" Byers talked about the range of city services for the homeless: "This administration's policy is to attempt to restore homeless people to full life in the community."

Advocates for the homeless are just as able to talk statistics (35,000 city households in need of housing assistance; more than 13,000 families on the Seattle Housing Authority waiting list), but say that shouldn't allow policymakers to punt on the encampment issue. "What is the alternative?" asks the Seattle Displacement Coalition's John Fox. "You can't argue [against encampments out of] safety or security or health reasons when the alternative for the people affected is much worse and much more inhumane."

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