Maybe free trade enthusiasts are right. Maybe if we abolish tariffs and pesky consumer protection laws life will be a lot peachier for everyone. Maybe the World Trade Organization will even end homelessness. But in the short term, during the WTO's upcoming Seattle mega-meeting, the homeless can expect nothing but more problems. For one thing, officials predict the motels used for the homeless voucher program will fill up with out-of-towners, possibly displacing the families who use the program. The homeless activist group SHARE points out the need for a temporary "tent city" where the displaced can sleep and dress without police harassment. So far, though, the city seems against it. Advocates for the homeless worry it will be same old story: While the big-wig suits are in town, the homeless can voluntarily leave town or go to jail.
The worry is that lefty protesters and other WTO hangers-on will grab whatever available rooms they can find. And yes, we are talking about rooms in gritty areas like the around-the-clock business district on Aurora Avenue north of the bridge, which you wouldn't necessarily think would attract the average free or even fair trade buffs. "We get the overflow," admits a clerk at the 14-room Aloha Motel. "This isn't exactly the type of place where [travelers] would choose to stay" if they had a choice, she adds.
Still, the normally half-vacant inns that raise many a passerby's eyebrows must seem heaven-sent to families who have no other shelter options (the Aloha Motel, by the way, does not participate in the voucher program). An additional $30,000 in city funds has been added to the program in case demand leads to higher room rates. The city is urging agencies who distribute the vouchers, groups like the Fremont Public Association, Family Services' Traveler's Aid, and the Salvation Army, to communicate with participating inns ahead of time so there's some guarantee the homeless can get in.
But who knows if the city's efforts will actually keep the voucher program running during the WTO's conference. And even if the program doesn't suffer, many homeless folks will: On the average winter night, there are about 2500 shelter beds and 5500 individuals who need them in Seattle. The voucher program only serves a couple hundred people a night at best. The rest will have to fend for themselves under the sweeping eyes of several hundred extra cops and security minions patrolling the streets.
Thus SHARE's request for a city-approved temporary camp, which the group promises it will "monitor" and take down when the event is done. While a temporary tent city has been erected several times in recent memory, the Emerald City, which would rather slide into the Pacific than have a contemporary Hooversville in its midst, has always fought SHARE's efforts for a permanent safe campsite. Deputy mayor Tom Byers says SHARE was granted a site at the Seattle Center in 1998 during Schell's Housing Summit. They "handled it well," he says, by which he means they took it down at the end of the event.
Byers says his current reluctance to permit another such camp stems from a flap over "the Jungle," a transient settlement near Beacon Hill that the city cleaned out in the summer of 1998. Without official permission, SHARE relocated the settlement nearby, ignoring the mayor's threats to arrest the tent-dwellers. "They operated in a way that dared the city to confront them," Byers says angrily. The city made good on its threat, and SHARE hasn't organized any tent-pitching since. Nobody is charging, though, that SHARE has ever broken any agreements over legal, temporary camp permits like the one it seeks now. Does the city really distrust SHARE, or do officials believe they're getting revenge for the group's civil disobedience?
If a temporary tent city is out of the question, how will the city protect the economically vulnerable? Byers indicates that boosting the voucher program may be all the city can do.
Everybody acknowledges that it will be hard for the homeless to be discreet about their homelessness while the gods of the business world are in town. In 1993, when the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation held its meeting in Seattle, the Seattle P-I reported that there were 2,315 inmates in the King County Jail, a record number which just happened to drop sharply when the conference was over. The homeless community worries that the police will do background checks of transient-looking people to see if they have warrants for past infractions of civility laws. This would be a convenient way, activists charge, to rid the streets of those who aren't, shall we say, dressed appropriately for a visit from President Clinton. But Lisa Herbold, aide to City Council member Nick Licata, says the police have reassured her there "will be no effort to see if Joe Schmo has a warrant." Even if the worries prove unfounded, the homeless will not be permitted to treat downtown like a bedroom and bathroom during this important moment in the city's history. They may have to go into super-stealth mode to take care of themselves in the most basic ways.