By a narrow vote, the city council rejected legislation today that would have expanded the parts of the city in which homeless encampments like Tent City and Nickelsville (currently permitted only on land owned by religious institutions or the city) are allowed.
The city has told Nickelsville residents that they have to leave their current encampment, which has been located illegally on city-owned land for the past two years, in September.
Council members who supported the legislation, including its sponsors Nick Licata and Mike O'Brien, said that although tent encampments aren't a perfect solution, they're better than leaving people to simply sleep on the street.
"I’ve heard [it said] that this legislation is being offered as a solution to homeless. It's not," Licata said. "It is, however, one option for improving the public safety and public health of homeless people who have no shelter.
The notion that it’s a partial solution and so it’s a failure—if you parse that out, there are many partial solutions," including shelter, Licata continued. "What I would consider a failure is having someone who’s literally sleeping outside without any shelter over their head."
After acknowledging that he could count the votes and they weren't going to go his way (prompting council president Sally Clark to quip, "You do have an MBA"), O'Brien added, "There is a real cost— both a human cost and financial cost—of not finding a place for folks to live safely. Those folks still exist. They will be sleeping somewhere. And we have to realize that there will be an impact on their lives that ultimately will come back to all of us as a society."
Opponents, in response, pointed out that the council has already provided $500,000 to help the former and soon-to-be-former residents of Nickelsville find services and shelter or housing. And they reiterated the common refrain that tents don't constitute adequate shelter.
"We funded an effective plan to help the people who are living in Nickelsville to find housing and services [and] it’s working," council member Tom Rasmussen said. "I know the legislation is well intended, but it’s a retreat from our effective strategy that’s working today."
Council member Richard Conlin, his arm in a sling from his bike accident this weekend, said homeless people come to Seattle because the city is generous with shelter and services. "Of course these people deserve services—they're human beings—but the fact is that there's only so much that Seattle can do by itself," Conlin said. He added: "I’m concerned that [tent cities] perpetuate homelessness, not provide a way out."
Before the vote, proponents pointed out during public comment that this year's annual One-Night Count of the county's unsheltered homeless population, in January, found nearly 2,000 people sleeping outside without any shelter in the middle of winter—meaning that even if every person now in Nickelsville got housing tomorrow, there would still be thousands more lined up for tents.
The final vote was 5-4, with Conlin, Rasmussen, Jean Godden, Tim Burgess, and Clark voting against, and Licata, O'Brien, Bruce Harrell, and Sally Bagshaw voting for.