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Homelessness top of mind for Seattle voters as ballots start dropping

Seattle voters are choosing from a crowded field of City Council candidates. More than 50 people are running for seven district seats.

There’s a lot to consider as voters fill out their ballots. But one issue seems to be top of mind for many: homelessness. Over the past several years, frustrations have mounted as the crisis has worsened.

For such a divisive topic, there’s a surprising amount of agreement around certain aspects. Everyone seems to agree that people shouldn't have to sleep in tents, vehicles and in parks.

And many also agree on long-term solutions, things like the need for more housing, more permanent supportive housing, and more treatment options for both behavioral health and substance use disorder.

It's the bit in the middle — how to respond to the visible crisis on the streets — where disagreement tends to occur. It's over things like whether encampment removals, or sweeps as they're often called, help or hurt.

Though only a portion of the population experiencing homelessness in Seattle is visible (roughly 45 percent, according to the latest annual tally), attentions tend to focus more on this piece of the issue because it’s the piece people see every day.

When it comes to policies around encampments and how to respond to them, this year’s crowded council races include candidates with a range of views.

At one end of the spectrum, you have candidates who are strongly opposed to the practice of removing camps and want the city to change its approach.

District 2 candidate Christopher Peguero, District 6 candidate Dan Strauss, and District 3 candidate Kshama Sawant are a small sample of people who fall in this category.

"Sweeps are not only ineffective, they're inhumane,” said Sawant, who is seeking re-election.

Sawant, a socialist, has often been heard to employ the familiar activist phrase "stop the sweeps."

She said she’s opposed to funding sweeps and that they’re not a good use of money. She wants the city to focus on solutions that work, advocating for more tiny house villages and social housing.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have candidates who support the city’s current approach for clearing encampments and even want to see it ramped up, if more shelter and treatment options can be added.

District 6 candidate Heidi Wills, District 1 candidate Brendan Kolding, and District 2 candidate Ari Hoffman provide a sample of some people who favor this approach.

"We can't keep allowing people to live like this. It's not safe for them, it's not safe for their neighbors around them, it's not safe for Seattle,” said Hoffman, a more conservative candidate.

Hoffman said camp removals are imperfect and sometimes just move people around.

But he said the team removing camps offers services and the practice is a useful tool to try to get people out of that situation. The city’s team in charge of both outreach and camp removals has shelter beds set aside specifically for clients they refer.

As candidates across the city are knocking on doors, they may not be asked explicitly about camp removals. But voters are certainly talking about the crisis on the streets.

Ben Anderstone, political consultant with Progressive Strategies Northwest, said voters are trying to gauge how prospective council members are thinking about encampments and visible homelessness, using it as a tonal test: Is the person taking a tough love or an open arms approach? Or are they somewhere down the middle?

"For the most part, people are kind of getting a gut check sense of how these candidates think about these issues,” Anderstone said. “They’re kind of figuring out whose thought pattern is kind of closest to their emotional reaction to these issues."

Not all candidates will be at extremes on this topic. Some fall in the middle, supporting removing camps in certain situations but not others.

Or they may walk a line between concerns about health and safety in unauthorized encampments, and recognition that there’s inadequate shelter and housing for everyone on the streets.

Anderstone said not all voters will fall at the ends of the spectrum either.

“They are people who see themselves as progressive, but are getting increasingly frustrated around government efficiency and government policy, and they’re kind of trying to bridge their politics with their perception of what’s happening on the ground,” he said.

“I think that’s kind of the quintessential swing voter in Seattle right now."

In a primary, especially with such a big field, candidates don’t need as many votes to make it through to the general election.

They don’t have to get above 50 percent. This means, depending on who comes out to vote, districts could see candidates on the ends of the spectrum making it through, according to Anderstone.

Or, he said, voters could go with candidates who are presenting themselves as more holistic, and able to represent the perspectives of people with different views on an issue like homelessness.

The mayor mostly drives policy around encampments in Seattle, overseeing a ramp up in the number of removals in recent years.

However, the makeup of the next City Council could influence the response to the crisis. Council members have a public platform and are able to wield power through the budget process.

Sara Rankin, a Seattle University law professor and director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, said continuing the status quo — more than 140 camp removals in the first four months of this year — is expensive and unproductive.

"It's the equivalent of literally sweeping the problem under the rug,” Rankin said.

She said things may look better for a while in a particular area, but the practice isn’t going to solve homelessness.

Rankin said she wants voters to consider whether the current approach is truly making things better.

“If people are being swept and they’re not being swept to stable housing, the problem has not been solved and it will recur,” Rankin said.

She advocates for long-term solutions like permanent supportive housing and, in the meantime, more low-barrier shelters and options people are likely to accept. Rankin said she wants voters to take emotion out of the equation when voting and think about what the proven solutions are.

Erin Goodman with the SoDo Business Improvement Area agrees: People should vote on solutions, and not ideology.

But she disagrees with Rankin when it comes to camp removals. Goodman said they can be expensive and repetitive, but she said stopping them isn’t an option for her neighborhood.

She said accumulation of trash and decreased access to the sidewalks around encampments make things difficult and she said there are health and safety concerns for both the surrounding community and those living in the camps.

Goodman said there should be a conversation around what happens when a person doesn’t accept shelter or if appropriate shelter options aren't available. But she said the city's current approach is appreciated in her area.

"What we see right now is a lot of gratitude when an encampment moves,” she said.

“It's not the ideal situation, we need to come up with a more permanent solution, but the answer is not to stop cleaning, because it's unsafe and unsanitary conditions."

Goodman said, even if camps return, at least trash is removed and sidewalks are clear in the interim.

In 2017, the city removed more than 3,200 tons of garbage and waste from unsheltered camps, according to its website.

In 2017, the city spent roughly $10 million on the new team charged with both outreach to and removal of unauthorized camps. The majority of the money appears to go towards cleanup efforts.

That same year, 191 camps were removed and roughly 700 people were referred to shelter, according to city data.

It’s unclear from the city’s data if each referral ended in someone completing intake at a shelter. Because of lack of integration between data sets, it’s also unclear how long people who went into shelters stayed or whether they were housed.

Whoever they are, the next slate of City Council members will have to deal with both the immediate crisis and long term solutions to homelessness. Beyond debates over one piece of the response, they’ll have to deal with the complex, emotional and nuanced issues that come along with stewarding the city at a time when thousands of people are without a home.