Friday Editorial

Mayor Murray Needs to Stop Triangulating on Homelessness

As Murray holds finger in the wind, council holds substantive discussions on encampments.

By Josh Feit September 23, 2016

Mayor Ed Murray, who's been fretting about a challenge from Seattle’s loud left ever since he was elected three years ago, is now much more worried about a challenge from the loud right. This is the only way to explain his dramatic  threat to veto council legislation limiting sweeps on homeless encampments.

I do understand the objections that Murray's directors and his chief of staff outlined in a recent letter to council denouncing the legislation. The bill would require the city to provide housing or alternative sites before forcing people to leave, and would make the city give 30-day notice of sweeps; it would require 48-hour notice at hazardous sites, while also making the city provide clean up resources like porta-potties and allow campers to address the safety issues at those unsuitable sites first themselves. Similar to the position articulated at yesterday's committee hearing by council member Tim Burgess (Murray’s only open council ally on the issue), the mayor and his city directors from parks, police, and transportation think the proposal’s formidable prerequisites would make public camping a right.

However, the intent of the council bill, as yesterday’s substantive council discussion made clear, is not about giving people a broad right to camp. Rather, it’s about defining the city’s ability to manage its public space to serve the public good. Yes, that certainly dovetails with civil rights for people experiencing homelessness, but at a policy level, the legislation is primarily about setting up a process to define suitable and unsuitable places for camping.    

The public good of making sure there are suitable places for people to camp is hard to refute. The policy logic of letting people camp until they have a better option, which has strong support on council, was laid out by city council member Mike O’Brien yesterday: Until the city has housing options in place, it can’t simply sweep people experiencing homelessness from spot to spot.

O’Brien said: “If we don't have suitable housing and someone is in a suitable location outdoors…they will simply move from that site to another one. And then we're back in a position where what we're dong is we're chasing people around town. And I don't think that solves any problems.”

Public defender Lisa Daugaard, who has been fighting to end sweeps explains, additionally, that sweeps actually create more problems for both homeless people and neighborhoods. “Sweeps of relatively secluded areas like some parks and greenbelts may push people into more visible trafficked areas in neighborhoods,” she says.

These points can hardly be lost on Murray, who often cites the Catholic Worker movement and its radical, selfless leader Dorothy Day as one of his early inspirations (which, by the way, is much more interesting than his standard JFK anecdotes and FDR quotes.)

To Murray’s credit, he has increased city investments in addressing homelessness. As he regularly points out, the city has spent $50 million to address homelessness in 2016, the highest total in city history. And he has embraced recommendations from the homelessness advocacy group All Home to proceed with a “Housing First” model which posits a long-term solution by prioritizing those most in need with actual housing.    

But Murray does the situation no good by looking at poll numbers that show a potential bourgeois backlash against camping rather than looking at the numbers of homeless people who have nowhere else to go. Murray should stop running for reelection by catering to angry homeowners and, instead, start running the city by prioritizing the plight of those without homes.

By taking a standoffish approach to the council bill, Murray seems like he’s being motivated by politics, not compassion. Certainly, when you add complaints from the right about homeless encampments to Murray’s transgressions against Seattle’s traditional neighborhoods (such as his executive order to dethrone district councils, his proposed expansion of urban villages, and his overture to allow triplexes in single family zones), it's true, he'll likely draw a bona fide challenger from the flustered and reanimated neighborhood movement. But reducing people who are living outside to a crosstab in a poll is unacceptable.

I’m not a pollster nor a political consultant, and it may be true that voters will line up against a mayor who allows the homeless epidemic to spill out into public view; council members on opposite sides of this issue tell me that, yes, emails are running strongly against the council proposal. But—and this isn’t Murray’s fault—homelessness is in the public view because it’s an undeniable aspect of our public policy choices. And ultimately, different policy choices, not sweeps, will stop people from living without shelter.

I emailed Murray’s office this morning to get a clear statement from him about the council deliberations. And to ask him, if indeed, he’s monitoring polling on this issue; I do know he has polled on the issue. I haven’t heard back.

Rather than listening to pollsters, he should be listening to the council, who appear to be leading the discussion on this issue.

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