This is a guest opinion piece by Wayne Wilson, our Impact Manager for Ending Homelessness.
Homelessness is one of the most tragic issues that we grapple with in King County. It’s inhumane for human beings to allow other human beings to live and sleep outdoors, but we see it in Seattle every day.
We cannot shirk off the homelessness crisis by simply saying “these people want to live outside.” Given the opportunity, 98% of respondents to the 2018 countywide Count Us In homelessness survey stated they would move into safe, affordable housing if it were offered.
12,100 people were counted in the 2018 point in time count of people experiencing homelessness in King County. 5,950 of them were in tents, unsanctioned encampments, abandoned buildings, vehicles and on the open street. I’ve heard all kinds of adjectives to describe/criticize those who live in these spaces throughout the county. The reality, however, is that people will continue to set up camps if they lack safe alternatives and can’t access a path out of homelessness.
The Seattle Times article “San Francisco Is Cracking Down On Tent Camps. Will Seattle Do The Same?” looks at the pros and cons of aggressively clearing encampments, both large and small. My feeling is to leave them alone until we have the wherewithal to designate specific places for camping or develop enough indoor shelter and housing. Places to move into that are safe, clean and secure year round, especially during the harsh winter months.
Another article from the National Association to End Homelessness sites a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that “People experiencing homelessness cannot be punished for sleeping outside in the absence of adequate alternatives.” The court stated that “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
We shouldn’t imprison or detain people for being homeless, even on a temporary basis. That just exposes them to more trauma, all because we’ve failed in our efforts to house them.
Some say that it is embarrassing for tourists to have to interact with homeless people as they walk by their tents on streets or adjacent to freeway exits. I think that is an understatement. The fact that 49% of our total homeless population live on our streets should embarrass and appall all of us, and move us into immediate action.
Your action can be life-changing right now. Two actions to get you started on ending homelessness: