A common stereotype is that homeless people are all hooked on drugs — but sometimes a job loss, death in the family, rent increase or a costly illness are often the reasons that families fall into homelessness.
But the politics of being homeless have moved from compassion and thoughtful discussion to one of intolerance and class distinction in some communities. Worse, for lack of knowledge, some in the public may be contributing an irreparable split in opinion that has added election year political pressure to many cities.
The “arrest them or run them out of town” viewpoint has become a louder voice. However, King County and Executive Dow Constantine remain steadfast in their commitment to try and solve the homelessness challenge and will transition 500 homeless people off the streets by the end of the year with $100 million of the $437 million the county received from the American Rescue Plan to accomplish that goal. That, combined with press coverage of missing the two-year goal of stamping out youth homelessness by 2021, will certainly become an issue in the race for county executive between incumbent Constantine and likely November challenger Joe Nguyen.
After COVID-19, homelessness has become the second biggest issue, facing government at all levels. However, disagreement on solutions are already driving some suburban cities farther apart when building consensus is needed.
Most people don’t think of the homeless when they think of Mercer Island, for example, but their city council recently passed a city ordinance on a 6-1 vote that makes it a crime to tresspass by camping on public property. The meeting was attended by more than 70 people with the community divided. One resident said: “I don’t want Mercer Island to become an overflow to Seattle’s problems,” while another resident said “We don’t want to bow to off-island pressure.”
A similar debate occurred in Port Angeles, according to the Seattle Times. Statistics suggest Seattle isn’t the problem as the homeless stay close to the community they lived in prior to becoming homeless. The legal interpretation of Martin vs. Boise requires every city to have a place for the homeless to go before they can be removed from public property, making the ordinance unenforceable because there are no shelters for the homeless on Mercer Island. The homeless are sent to shelters on the Eastside, mostly Bellevue. The goal appears to be to discourage people from staying outside overnight or sleeping in their cars by connecting the homeless with shelters. Critics are concerned about the homeless being jailed or facing large fines because more shelter space is needed.
Auburn also passed a similar ordinance on a split 4-3 vote that added criminal penalties for camping in the city’s Environmental Park. Auburn has also built a support system to connect homeless with services through a diversion court, and the city has a staff person who is charged with helping match the homeless to services they need. The diversion court provides a legal route for the homeless to access services and support.
In Federal Way, a disagreement boiled over into trespassing on private property by a group of residents who are angry about both the homeless in the city and the county’s needle exchange program. Some residents wanted to “put a little more pressure on the city” and chose an unnecessary political statement that resulted in three protests, which filled over 40 shopping carts with garbage and other items from a nearby homeless encampment, with the carts being placed on 320th Street, a main arterial. It was unnecessary because the property owner was getting bids to have the property cleared. However, the public will now pay thousands of dollars for the cleanup, according to the city, because the carts were placed on a public sidewalk.
Several Federal Way residents had posted comments about their shopping cart actions on social media, but those names have since been deleted or covered up, according to reports. In 2017 and again recently, Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell has made his opposition to the county needle exchange program clear, but he lacks the legal authority to stop the program, which is supported by the county department of health. Ferrell has also said he doesn’t want Federal Way to be Seattle.
On several occasions, I have been critical of Ferrell for choosing a “run them out of town” approach rather than establishing a plan to end homelessness in Federal Way that includes shelter, jobs, training and affordable housing. Over the years, the city says it has closed 200 homeless camps, forcing the homeless to continually move locations, and then complained about the mess they left. One resident called Ferrell a liar on that 200 number in a public meeting, although the number likely includes several at the same location — and the resident’s microphone was turned off as expected, according to the rules for council meetings. Churches and non-profit groups have provided much of the support for the homeless, though some of the funding came from the city. The consequences for trespassing and illegal dumping range from a warning to a $5,000 fine and jail time. One City Hall insider compared the residents taking the law into their own hands to acting like vigilantes.
Ferrell was concerned about escalating the issue if police handed out citations to the group, and he supported a simple warning. However, one of the residents had already escalated the issue by passing herself off as a drug user, which she was not, in order to gain information about the needle exchange program. That resident then used that information to prod Ferrell in an election year to try and get the health department to withdraw the program from Federal Way. Now we have the more serious shopping cart protest. Previously, other members of the citizens group had acknowledged in emails that they were visiting homeless camps while armed — a recipe for disaster.
Additionally, rumors have circulated about an attempt to recall Ferrell, though his actions would not likely fit the legal requirements. Another rumor is that the residents would mount a write-in campaign for one of their own, since Ferrell’s only opposition to reelection this year is from a perennial candidate. However, a new mayor would still face the same lack of authority as Ferrell on the needle exchange program.
Predictably, other citizens are shocked by the behavior of their fellow residents’ actions and believe the city should prosecute them, or at least require them to pay the bill. They are asking, what statement does it send for residents to break the law and avoid accountability?
Lastly, Ferrell seems unable to fully grasp that after years of clearing homeless camps, rather then developing a multifaceted plan to eliminate homelessness in Federal Way, his opposition to the needle exchange program has played a role in this embarrassing fiasco. It gave citizens the feeling that they could get away with breaking the law.
This time the citizens who were taking the law into their own hands was in Federal Way. But next time it could be Mercer Island, Port Angeles, Bellevue, or Auburn. We cannot leave the decisions to the loudest voices. Citizens need to respect and follow the law. We trusted the experts to handle COVID-19 . We need to trust the same health experts on the needle exchange.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.