Plenty of cities tear them down, but Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (D) wants his city to build three new tent encampments for the homeless.
Murray proposed the camps Wednesday, about a year after a local one-night census of people without shelter found that homelessness had spiked by almost 15 percent from early 2013 to early 2014. The measure is a down-scale version of a proposal from the working group Murray assembled in October to make policy recommendations on homelessness. That body suggested creating seven new camps instead of three, and did not include the prohibition on camps in residential neighborhoods which appears in Murray’s legislation.
“Permitted encampments are not, in my view, a long-term strategy to end homelessness,” Murray said in announcing the measure. “But planned, organized encampments have less impact on our neighborhoods and provide a safer environment than what we see on our streets today.” Permanent housing, not temporary tent camps, are the foundation of ending homelessness in American cities. The camps are at best a first step toward such a long-term solution, and at worst a lateral move for a city undergoing a major spike in homelessness.
If the ordinance is approved, the camps would have to be located within half a mile of public transit stops so that residents could have ready access to services elsewhere in the city. No camp would be located within a mile of any other, and city parks would not host any of the camps.
Experts on homelessness agree that tent cities are not a sustainable model for managing homelessness, let alone reducing it. The leader of Seattle’s City Council has signaled opposition to the measure, citing the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness’ (ICH) findings about tent camps.
“Encampments are not a solution to homelessness and are not a best practice,” Council President Tim Burgess (D) told the Seattle Times. Burgess opposed a similar measure last year when a fellow councilmember proposed it in the wake of the January 2014 homeless census that found hundreds more people sleeping without shelter in Seattle than the previous year’s search turned up.
While Burgess is right that camps aren’t a solution, the ICH work he cited to the local paper doesn’t quite add up to a condemnation of Murray’s plan. The group’s paper on “Effective Community-Based Solutions to Encampments” offers recommendations and case studies for cities whose homeless population has already formed tent cities organically. With dozens of cities around the country acting to criminalize homelessness or shuffle homeless people around without addressing the causes of homelessness, Murray’s plan makes a sharp contrast with the approach many other places have taken. Rather than crack down on the camps and scatter their destitute residents to the winds, as Albany and San Jose, CA, and St. Petersburg, FL have done in recent memory, the ICH recommends sending social service workers into existing camps to connect residents with permanent housing solutions.
Murray’s plan would require the social service organizations that would run Seattle’s new tent camps to do exactly that sort of work. And in Seattle, where even 1,700 shelter beds per night fall far short of the need, the homeless are currently taking to bridges and other relatively safe outdoor spaces in an ad-hoc manner. Murray hopes that organizing and concentrating those people will make it easier to provide them with long-term services and solutions.
Permanent housing is the key strategy in combating homelessness. It costs cities three times more to leave a person on the street to incur hospital and law enforcement costs than it does to put that same person into permanent housing with wrap-around services that are essential to restoring a person’s financial independence.
Murray’s statement Wednesday endorsed that consensus around the importance of permanent housing without laying out a plan for investing in more such housing units. He did announce additional capacity at city shelters, including 15 beds at a youth shelter that works to keep young people from sliding into long-term or chronic homelessness. But shelters offer a limited form of comfort, and are simply not designed to support the long-term lifestyle transition required for a person to move from chronic homelessness back to stability.