When it comes to the growing homeless population in downtown Renton and beyond, the city is doing everything it can to offer help to those who want it but can only remove a person when police see them breaking the law.
That seemed to be the message during a 90-minute discussion Monday by the City Council’s Committee of the Whole on chronic homelessness.
Council members and staff were all careful to make the distinction between homeless people and families who have fallen on hard times and those who refuse services and are often those who draw complaints from residents.
“In Renton, it’s a very small subset of the homeless population,” said Karen Bergsvik, the Community Services Department’s Human Services Division manager.
Bergsvik gave the council an overview of what the city is doing to try and provide services to the burgeoning homeless population, which she said is being caused by a lack of affordable housing, especially in Seattle, causing those with federal Section 8 housing vouchers to look for cheaper living to the south.
In Renton alone, there is a five-year wait list for Section 8 housing, according to Bergsvik.
“Most of these are Renton residents who are looking for subsidized housing,” she said.
Bergsvik also talked about the county-wide effort to provide housing and look for solutions to the issues but admitted that as of now, it’s “not enough.”
“Every city is facing the same problem,” she said. “It’s not unique to Renton.”
But for many residents and several members of the council, the main issue was not what the city was doing to help the homeless but what they can do to help answer worries from residents, who complain about seeing members of the homeless population urinating, fighting, using drugs and even having sex in public.
According to Police Chief Kevin Milosevich, it’s a “small minority” of the homeless population that does not want help, but because homelessness is not a crime, the role of police becomes one of “enforcing behavior and conduct.”
Panhandling and loitering, for example, are not crimes and the police can only act when they see a crime being committed, though he admitted that he has heard some residents do not like to shop at some downtown locations after dark, simply because of the large groups of homeless that gather there.
“Realistically, there’s nothing we can do,” he told the council.
Councilman Don Persson again made the distinction between the majority of the homeless in the city and the “hooligans” causing problems and said that homeless people not causing problems should be left alone, but those who do must be dealt with like anyone else committing a criminal act.
“We have an obligation to our citizens to make them feel safe,” he said. “There’s people that won’t go into our parks because of the rowdiness of some of the homeless.”
Councilwoman Ruth Perez agreed that a city that values diversity must value those without homes, but that if residents do not feel safe, the city must act.
That comment prompted an exchange with Councilman Greg Taylor who said that if a resident asked him what he would do about the homeless, he would take the opportunity to start a conversation with the resident about the causes of homelessness and that it’s only a small percentage of the population that is a problem.
“We have to get people to understand that homeless doesn’t mean criminal element,” he said.
Perez and other council members fired back that no one was saying that all homeless are criminals, but that it is the criminal element that residents want the council to deal with. Persson said it was “not fair” when those who break laws are labeled “homeless” instead of “criminals.”
Councilwoman Marcie Palmer, for example, said she hears from residents all the time about feeling threatened by groups of homeless people congregating and said that even she felt intimidated walking past two tables full of homeless at Jones Park even while on her way to the North Renton Picnic this summer.
“Those are the ones we’re complaining about,” she said, adding that while there are groups who offer food and services such as the Salvation Army, the unfortunate truth is that sometimes those services bring “the most unsavory of these people” to residential neighborhoods.
“I don’t think we need to criminalize homelessness,” said council President Ed Prince. “I think we need to prosecute criminal acts.”
Milosevich and City Attorney Larry Warren again reiterated that there is little the city can do if crimes are not being committed.
After the meeting, Milosevich said the department has a core group of officers who work the downtown beat, and though they can’t be everywhere, they are using the tools they have to both help those who want it and to deal with those who don’t. In August alone, police issued 26 expulsions from parks downtown, cited 114 and arrested 17.
“When we see criminal conduct, we’ll respond,” he said.
Following the meeting, Prince said he requested the topic because of numerous emails and calls about the issue but was clear that he wanted to focus on those causing problems and not those who have run into hard times.
“I wanted to have a holistic conversation on the other folks,” he said.
Prince said he finds it troubling that residents do not feel safe at certain shopping centers because “perception is reality” when it comes to safety and said he thought the chief’s response was good.
“I hope that Renton and our elected officials can be leaders in getting something done on this issue,” he said.
But not everyone liked what they heard. Diane Dobson, who lives downtown and has been an outspoken critic of the city’s response to citizen complaints about homeless-related crime, said the discussion was a “good start” but that she felt department heads were trying to minimize the safety concerns of residents.
She said from her perspective, it seems the “hooligan” component is getting ore aggressive and taking a “territorial ownership” on the neighborhood, but said she and others in the area have been pleased with the police response, if not from the political leaders.
“I’d like more accountability by the city for the role they play,” she said.
For his part, Mayor Denis Law said the administration has been dealing with this for a long time and that in many ways, the city’s hands are tied because citizens want them to do something regardless if there is a crime begin committed or not. He said he was “sympathetic” to the concerns of residents and that police would be aggressive on enforcement issues.
“I don’t blame them for being frustrated,” he said, adding, “We’re trying everything we can to figure out an effective and sustainable plan to address what we can legally address.”