Seattle City Council elections are coming up in a few months and the Seattle Times reports that Mayor Jenny Durkan has been quietly cleaning up homeless camps at an increased rate compared to last year. Durkan may be hoping that by reducing some of the visible signs of the problem she can mollify voters who are tired of seeing tent camps on sidewalks and in parks throughout the city. But if she’s cleaning up the streets, she’s also not saying much about it publicly.
Seattle removed 75% more homeless encampments in the first four months of this year than during the same period in 2018, even with this February’s record snowstorm slowing clean-ups.
Yet the city hasn’t highlighted the dramatic uptick in any official announcement. Durkan hasn’t trumpeted the approach as a crackdown on visible homelessness. And advocates are protesting less.
Legally, there are two types of camps in Seattle. Larger camps require 72-hour notice and offers of shelter to everyone living there. But smaller camps don’t require any of this. So the emphasis has been on the smaller camps which the city can remove at will. In the first four months of 2018, just 11 such camps were removed. This year the number is 93.
Acknowledged only through the Mayor’s denial is the KOMO news special “Seattle is Dying” which became a rallying point for fed-up city residents in March.
The mayor says her approach is consistent with her 2017 campaign promises, and is not a reaction to KOMO-TV’s controversial “Seattle is Dying” documentary, which stirred anger as this year’s City Council elections heated up.
“I think it was clear on the campaign trail what the philosophy was going to be,” she said. “I still believe strongly that leaving people in place, in inhumane and unsafe conditions, is not a strategy the city can have.”
That sounds good but the fact remains that the ground has shifted under the politician’s feet. It started about a year ago with the repeal of the head tax. The left-leaning City Council passed the tax assuming residents would be thrilled but quickly realized they were not. In fact, a poll showed residents were not happy about the tax and it was quickly repealed.
But it wasn’t just the left-wing City Council that had the wind knocked out of their sales. Homeless activists who had advocated for the tax and for more spending and less enforcement also took a hit and have not been as vocal recently.
One of the major arguments made in “Seattle is Dying” is that the problem on the streets isn’t mostly about lack of affordable housing but also about drug abuse. That gets a quiet acknowledgment in the Seattle Times story as well:
[Melissa] Speed estimated she’s been told to move by the city at least 30 times over the 3½ years she’s been living outside. Now, it’s happening more often. “It’s a constant circle,” she said.
Speed said she’s been trying to quit drugs, but it’s nearly impossible when living on the street and being surrounded by friends and neighbors offering quick hits. There are limited shelter beds for people currently using drugs, and she doesn’t feel safe in most shelters.
So with the activists finally back on their heels, the city is making more of an effort to clean up the most visible signs of the problem. For businesses in the city, this isn’t just about how the streets look, it’s also about the constant petty crime which impacts their employees and their customers. People won’t shop in areas where they don’t feel safe. As this graph shows, robbery and assault in downtown Seattle are both up sharply in the past two years:
So Mayor Durkan is making some effort but doing so quietly so she doesn’t rile up the activists. The Seattle City Council may be full of left-wing ideologues but they also know they could be out of a job if voters still feel like Seattle is Dying when they get to the polls later this year.