Are We Hiding the Homeless When We Should Be Housing Them?

Seattle spends tons of money playing whack-a-mole with the destitute. And, surprise, it’s not making the problem go away.

Kirk McClain is wet and miserable. It is fall 2014, late at night.

After the cops kicked him out of Cal Anderson Park at 11:30 p.m., the unemployed office manager walked a mile uphill to Freeway Park over I-5, unrolled his bedroll onto the frigid ground beside his backpack and his rolling suitcase, and commenced slumbering. McClain has been sleeping in parks for a couple of months now, since summer, when a night at one of Seattle’s packed shelters infested his clothes and body with some kind of bug. But then summer’s blazing days and gentle nights gave way to bitter chill.

At Freeway Park, McClain lay on his back, rolled to one side and then the other, trying to get comfortable. After a few minutes of self-situating, he finally began to drift off.

And the sprinklers switched on.

The spray was abrupt and violent, like electricity stabbing his nerves. His body, his clothes, his bags—everything sucked up the water like a greedy sponge. McClain bolted upright, still half-asleep. He jumped to his feet, grabbed his luggage and bedroll, and scrambled away from the blast zone.

But now he is wet with nowhere to go, and it’s early autumn in the Pacific Northwest. His waterlogged backpack is heavier than ever, and the thighs of his pants rub together with every step. McClain wanders downtown, cursing his luck, wishing for one thing only: a way to get dry.

Finally one occurs to him. “At that point, I knew of one place I could go that was outside where there was heat,” he will recall later.

That place he calls “The Grate”—a two-foot-square exhaust vent situated in the pavement of an alley by Second and James, public property right by the entrance to the bus tunnel. A steady stream of warm air constantly wafts upward from the Grate, as though it covered the mouth of an ever-exhaling subterranean giant.

McClain trudges to the Grate, half a mile from Freeway Park. He removes his shoes, socks, coat, and shirt and lays them delicately on top of the improvised dryer. One sock shoots into the air like a deflating balloon, and McClain has to retrieve it. He huddles beside the sum of his worldly possessions and tries once again to catch a modicum of comfort.

And a private security guard, probably from a nearby building, shows up. He’s big, burly, blond. Later, McClain will recall their conversation: “You can’t lay there,” the guard says.

McClain looks up at him. “I’m wet,” he says truthfully. “I’m tired, I’m cold. It’s 2:30 in the morning. I don’t have anywhere to go. And I’m wet,” he repeats.

The guard looks at him like, so what? “I don’t care,” he says. “You have to leave. You cannot sit here.”

They argue back and forth for a few minutes. When the guard threatens to call the police, McClain thinks to himself, I don’t want any problems. A homeless black man, in the middle of the night, soaked and penniless, who already got evicted from one public space just a few hours before—no, the cops aren’t a great option. He stands up, struggles into his soaked clothes, slings his soaking pack over his back, grasps the worn handle of his rolling suitcase, and walks numbly into the night.

Seattle has the fourth-largest homeless population in the country.With a 21 percent increase over 2014, according to this year’s annual One Night Count, the city is fixing to overtake Las Vegas for the bronze. Of the roughly 640,500 souls who live here, one in six live below the federal poverty line, putting them one catastrophe away from joining the three or four thousand who lay their heads to rest in the Emerald City’s streets and alleys, on its benches and doorways, inside its parks and bus stops, or hidden behind its bushes and underbrush.

That they are here does not mean they are welcome. Seattle, like virtually all Washington cities, has effectively criminalized visible homelessness through a variety of ordinances which homeless people cannot help but violate if they want to survive. Law professor Sara Rankin and her students at Seattle University’s Homeless Resource Advocacy Project (HRAP) examined 72 municipalities in Washington. They found that “Washington cities increasingly criminalize homelessness by making it illegal to perform necessary, life-sustaining activities,” like sleeping and peeing, in public, without offering any private alternatives.

These are not labeled “Anti-Homeless Laws” in the Seattle Municipal Code. For the most part they’re motivated by reasonable priorities like not wanting someone to shit on your doorstep (SMC 12A.10.100) or the desire not to be yelled at by a schizophrenic while walking down the sidewalk (SMC 12A.12.015). Some have been around since at least the 1970s, when the King County Bar Association rewrote parts of the city’s “obsolete, duplicative, incomplete” criminal code; all appear to predate the current council’s longest-standing member, Nick Licata.

“Everyday people, citizens of the city,” says City Council president Tim Burgess, “don’t like it when people defecate on the sidewalk in front of their house or in front of their business.”

But, HRAP shows, combine these middle-class priorities with ignorance about or apathy toward the contingencies of life on the street, and suddenly you’re writing ordinances that effectively outlaw the very existence of homeless people by outlawing their use of the only resources they have. When it costs money to obey the law, the poorest among us necessarily become criminals.

Burgess is no stranger to the kinds of laws HRAP’s report examines. In 2010 he sponsored an ordinance making “aggressive solicitation” a civil infraction, to complement the city’s existing criminal ordinance against “aggressive panhandling.” Critics including the ACLU, the city’s Human Rights Commission, and Real Change attacked Burgess’ proposal as ineffective, inhumane, and possibly unconstitutional. Mayor Mike McGinn ultimately vetoed it, and Burgess was unable to gather the votes for an override.

With this on his resume, Burgess is ideally situated to answer one basic, pressing question: Where do these laws come from? In other words, which constituents are calling for them?

“The most outspoken tend to be neighborhood business folks,” he says. “That’s certainly true downtown, [with] shop owners and restaurants and different folks who complain about what we might refer to as ‘antisocial behavior’ . . . I think that’s the group that’s often saying, ‘Hey, city, police: fix this problem.’ ”

Burgess’ answer is echoed by Burien city manager Kamuron Gurol, who told TheSeattle Times earlier this year, “What we hear from the public is they want to feel safe in public places, particularly places where they take kids.” He was describing the rationale for an ordinance Burien passed last year that allowed police to banish a person from public libraries and parks for, among other things, body odor or using a restroom to shave. The law was partly revised earlier this year after widespread public criticism, but, as HRAC notes, Burien, like Seattle, still has plenty of anti-homeless laws on its books.

It’s worth emphasizing that many of these laws have some legitimate policy goal as their motive. Don’t bully people into giving you money; don’t block the sidewalk; don’t pee on someone else’s window; don’t hog scarce parking. Proponents point out that each one offers the same protections to all Seattleites, regardless of wealth or housing status. Seattle police spokesperson Sgt. Sean Whitcomb points to sporting events as one instance where prohibiting public urination and pedestrian interference pretty clearly target people with money (and homes) for the sake of a larger public good.

To advocates, such laws prevent the injustice of regular citizens getting saddled with the results of antisocial behavior. They keep people safe from threats of violence. They promote sanitation, to create a clean and pleasant living environment. They guarantee accessibility, allowing everyone to use public space. They protect fairness by preventing one group of people from bullying another. While they may disproportionately affect the homeless, they also benefit the homeless by keeping public spaces safe, clean, and accessible to everyone.

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”—so says French novelist Anatole France, quoted by HRAP researchers Javier Ortiz and Matthew Dick.

The arguments for the laws in question are not lost on them. The problem with these laws, they say, is not that they are applied in selective and discriminatory ways, but that they are applied consistently to people in profoundly disparate circumstances—like submerging both a fish and a baby beneath water.

“Camping outdoors, urinating in public, sitting or lying down on sidewalks—these laws target homeless people either in practice or outright,” write HRAP researchers Scott MacDonald and Justin Olson. “For those without shelter, there is no alternative but to conduct these behaviors in public.” Rather than pick up the slack of a social-services system that is broken at the state and national levels, they say, cities faced with homelessness “fall into the trap of vilifying already vulnerable populations in the name of safety and public health.”

Cities pour scarce public funds into enforcing these laws, to questionable effect: HRAP’s research finds that far from mitigating homelessness (or even making it less of an inconvenience to housed people), laws like sit/lie ordinances (in effect in Seattle from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and public camping bans work like a multimillion-dollar game of whack-a-mole against the homeless.

HRAP reports that for the six anti-homeless laws they identified—pedestrian interference, public urination, aggressive panhandling, sit/lie, camping in public places, and storing personal property in public—Seattle police issued 5,814 citations (more than any other city in the state) and made 93 arrests from 2009–13 at a total cost of $101,169.24 in police labor. Court costs for pedestrian interference—which includes “aggressive beg[ging],” and is the only law for which HRAP was able to get court data—totaled $24,351.74, and those court decisions led to a sentencing total of 15,217 days in jail. It’s likely that the number of days actually served was less—although one man, Gregory Justin Hughes, spent 364 days in jail for pedestrian interference. At an average cost of roughly $145 per inmate per day, the total cost of incarceration for pedestrian-interference violations could have been as low as $670,505 or as high as $2,245,518. Overall, HRAP estimates that “an estimated five-year minimum of $2,300,000 is directly attributed to enforcing” these laws, though Howard and Tran emphasize that this is a lowball estimate due to inadequate data.

That’s just the city’s price tag. Suppose you’re homeless, unemployed, perhaps mentally ill and/or an addict, and you get a citation for sitting on a downtown sidewalk. You don’t respond, either because you can’t afford to or because you don’t get to the right courtroom on the right day at the right time. This triggers misdemeanor penalties, which can carry jail time, more fines, and more court dates, in turn providing you with more opportunities to run afoul of a complex legal system. You’re caught in a vicious cycle, a snowball that’s picking up speed—and you’re now even likelier to pop back up on the streets rather than regain housing and employment.

(HRAP notes that since 2013, the city attorney’s office has managed to minimize the number of such snowballs by reining in citations for failure to appear at court, though that’s a matter of discretionary policy that could change with a new administration.)

Solving homelessness with homes , HRAP argues, would be a lot cheaper than compounding it with handcuffs. “Investing the $3.7 million spent in criminalization ordinances [in Spokane and Seattle] over the five years covered in this study in housing the homeless [instead] could save taxpayers over $2 million annually and over $11 million total over the five years,” write Howard and Tran.

The term for this approach is Housing First, and it means what it says: The solution to homelessness is housing, not patronizing speeches, arcane paperwork, or punitive laws. The idea, Howard and Tran write, is that “addressing and solving the primary problem of permanent housing will have a positive domino effect, resolving many other problems that homelessness presents to homeless people and society generally. With stable housing, homeless people no longer need to worry about finding a place to sleep each night; instead, they can focus on other issues such as finding employment, rehabilitating various health challenges, and otherwise being a more active and productive member of the community.”

This implies something of a no-questions-asked approach, or at least no-more-questions-than-a-normal-renter-is-asked. Which is the whole point: let formerly homeless tenants figure out how to work out their own lives like any other renter instead of micromanaging their behavior.

Seattle’s successfully experimented with this approach, albeit on a small scale. As of 2010, the city hosted 280 Housing First units, including a “wet” house for alcoholics at 1811 Eastlake. That house saved taxpayers $4 million in its first year alone, largely by reducing residents’ trips to jail and the emergency room. Housing homeless alcoholics turns out to be about 6.4 times cheaper than criminalizing them, according to an evaluation of 1811 Eastlake published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

With this preliminary success, Burgess says, the city government is trying to shift more of the $40 million the city currently spends on homelessness funding from intervention (like shelters) into Housing First and similar projects. Whether they can effect that shift, and whether it will be enough to solve Seattle’s homelessness crisis, remains to be seen.

There’s grassroots enthusiasm for this common-sense approach. “If you want to get someone off the street, the best way to do that is to get them a permanent house, a permanent home,” says McClain, who spent that wet night in Seattle in 2014. “Can you think of any other solution that would deter people from pissing on the street or deter them from panhandling?”

Well, yes. Another alternative to criminalization is encampments like Nickelsville. These shantytowns have been no small source of controversy in Seattle for years, thanks largely to standoffish neighbors. “My husband said ‘There’s tents up there,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, no,’ because we have trouble with transients already,” property manager Jan Beruman told a KIRO reporter in 2013, after part of Nickelsville had pitched camp on nearby land owned by the Low Income Housing Institute.

Despite NIMBY concerns, in March the city council finally brought itself to allow three new encampments in industrial, commercial and multi-family areas.

At 100 souls apiece, these new encampments will serve only a small fraction of the city’s homeless population, but that’s not nothing. “300 more tents means that at least 300 more people will have shelter,” said tent city resident Roger Franz after the council vote passed.

And 300 fewer people littering and pooping in the bushes. Nickelsville, says Sola Plumacher, a Strategic Advisor with the Seattle Human Services Department (HSD), “looks really different, and is much more sustainable, than an illegal, unsanctioned encampment that has no trash removal, has no sanitation services.” HRAP reports that sanctioned encampments generally cost cities about $50 per resident per month, although Nickelsville has reported a number as low as $30. Letting folks set up a couple dozen tents and shacks on unused land allows the city to streamline sanitation services: porta-potties and trash removal. It also outsources a lot of public-safety and case-management work to the encampment community, where people tend to work together because they know their lives depend on it.

Plumacher acknowledges that Seattle’s shelter capacity is nowhere near adequate to handling the thousands of homeless who need it, but she doesn’t think it’s feasible to pick up most or all of that short-term slack by expanding encampments until they meet homeless demand. “Camping’s great, for a weekend,” she says. “But living at a tent city for a long period of time is not fun . . . Going there in the wintertime when it’s horrible and wet and rainy—when they were at West Marginal Way Southwest, they were in a basin of water. It was horrible. The rat infestation problem was atrocious. It is not a way for people to live, long-term, even with adequate supports to attempt to deal with public health and safety issues. What does make more sense is that we focus on prevention and upstream diversion efforts, and try and hit people before they become homeless or become engendered to street dependency.”

Plumacher notes that the city plans to expand its shelter capacity in coming months—100 beds for men this summer, 15 beds for youth on Capitol Hill, and eventually a new shelter in north Seattle, she says. But neither she nor elected officials have offered a plan to immediately shelter the thousands who live on Seattle’s streets. Given how far demand for shelter outstrips supply, and given how long it will take to build Housing First units, it’s not clear what alternatives to widespread encampments exist. Other than doing nothing, of course.

Not long after McClain spent his long night fleeing from park to sprinkler to grate to streets, he got a job running the counter at the Downtown Emergency Services Center, and today works at Capitol Hill Housing. Nowadays he wears khakis and button-downs; a passerby would likely sooner peg him as a Lands’ End catalogue model than as someone less than a year past sleeping in doorways.

There wasn’t any particular reason for him to catch that break at that moment. He’d been looking for work for years, and then all at once he got a job offer from DESC, he says, and interviews with Amazon and a swank law firm downtown.

Part of what kept him going, he says, was stubborn hope. “Even when I was out here for a long time, for years that went by, I knew that I wasn’t going to be here. I never saw myself on the street a year into my future,” he says. “Each year I was out there, the next year I figured I’d have it together, I figured I’d get a break, I figured something would happen, that I would be able to get off the street.” This was palpably unrealistic: McClain says he became homeless in 2009, yet didn’t find work and housing until last fall. But some people have faith.

Knowing in his gut that he’d make it, he says, motivated him to do what he needed to actually make it—five years later: staying sober, going to work-placement agencies, filling out applications, occasionally going to job interviews.

It could have gone differently. “Things compound fairly quickly when you don’t have any resources,” he says. “All the sudden you’re smoking more weed or you’re taking some drug that you never had before. Because it’s like, ‘Fuck it,’ is what you end up saying to yourself. ‘Why not? I got nothing. I have nowhere to go . . . Why not get high?’”

Now on the other side of the doorway, McClain understands the impulse behind anti-homeless laws. “If someone comes up to you [panhandling] and they’re aggressive and you don’t know whether you’re going to be assaulted by that person, that’s common sense” to be afraid or repulsed, he says. “No one likes to go through that.

“But the way to solve it,” he says, “is not to pass laws that violate people’s human rights”—not to commit to a kind of city-wide NIMBYism and hope the problem goes away. “You have to fix the entire system. You can’t work within the system when the system itself is broken, because there are no levers that create actual results.

“It’s all an avoidance of trying to solve the entire problem.”

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