Written by Tim Harris, Executive Director
A Pioneer Square business owner angrily compares homeless people in a nearby park to pigeons and demands in a public meeting that they be cleared away immediately. Yakima considers new anti-panhandling legislation, and sheriffs in Snohomish County are ticketing freeway on-ramp beggars for pedestrian interference.
While all of this is recent, none of it is new. Over the past two decades, as the numbers of homeless people have steadily risen, visible poverty has been criminalized across the United States, with a battery of legislation to prohibit sitting or lying on public sidewalks, camping on public property, overnight parking, panhandling, feeding people in public, and even the possession of a shopping cart or a blanket.
While these laws have added to the troubles that poor people face with fines, jail time, and criminal records that makes it harder to find housing and work, homelessness itself has continued to rise.
Recent budget cuts at both the state and federal levels have not helped. Over the past four years, more than $20 million has been slashed from Washington state programs offering mental health and addiction treatment services to the very poor.
Once proposed, these laws, driven by fear and prejudice, almost always pass. Seattle has provided a few recent exceptions, but these stand as a fragile hedge against the greater trend.
The Seattle Human Rights Commission, for example, overwhelmingly rejected a 2010 attempt to criminalize panhandling, saying that civil infraction fines typically result in missed court dates and criminal misdemeanor charges for failure to respond. This, they said, would create consequences “disproportionate to the offense committed” and unfairly target vulnerable populations.
After a rancorous public debate over “street disorder,” this particular ordinance was narrowly defeated. The Center City Initiative is a new approach to civility issues that brings together business and tourism interests, homeless advocates and service providers, and public defenders and police, to act on their common interest of a downtown Seattle that works for everyone.
Instead of pointing fingers and engaging in polarized debate driven by electoral ambition, those who are closest to the problems of street crime and unmet human need are working together toward long-term solutions.
A number of innovative programs already operate on a small scale that, with additional support, could offer even more effective alternatives to criminalization. If expanded and paired with increased treatment, mental health, and housing facilities, these programs could provide long-term solutions to perceived problems of street disorder.
1811 Eastlake: This once controversial project operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) provides housing to up to 75 formerly homeless street alcoholics, and prioritizes admission of the “frequent flyers” that draw the most resources in terms of police and emergency room interaction. Residents are allowed to purchase and consume alcohol in their rooms and are not required to participate in treatment as a condition of housing. Studies by the University of Washington showed a 35 percent reduction in heavy drinking by residents and a substantial reduction in occurrence of delirium tremens with a savings to the City of Seattle of approximately $2 million annually.
Crisis Resource Center: Also operated by DESC, the CRC offers resources to first responders helping those in crisis who might otherwise receive no help, or be taken to jail or the hospital emergency room. The goal of the CRC is to reduce chronic homelessness and unnecessary interaction with criminal or emergency medical facilities. Similar programs are successfully operating across Washington State in Pierce, Spokane, Whatcom, Yakima, Skagit, and Thurston counties. The program is intended to serve men and women who are in crisis due to mental or addictive illnesses and who are currently being sent to jails or hospitals because more appropriate, therapeutic options do not exist.
Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD): This innovative program, initiated by the Racial Disparity Project of The Defender Association, is a pre-booking diversion pilot program developed with the community to address low-level drug and prostitution crimes in the Belltown neighborhood in Seattle and the Skyway area of unincorporated King County. The program allows law enforcement officers to redirect low-level offenders engaged in drug or prostitution activity to community-based services, instead of jail and prosecution. By diverting eligible individuals to services, LEAD is committed to improving public safety and public order, and reducing the criminal behavior of people who participate in the program.
Of course, the deeper solution to issues of aggressive panhandling and people acting out due to mental illness and addiction is to adequately fund the services people need to achieve personal success and stability.
One ray of hope within the Center City Initiative process was a letter to Olympia legislators, signed by constituents ranging from the Downtown Seattle Association to Real Change, that linked the importance of preserving survival services to issues of downtown livability and prosperity. The letter explained that funding human services is not just the humane and right thing to do, but that it makes economic sense as well.
Voices still exist in Seattle and elsewhere that prefer the perceived quick-fix of new law enforcement tools to the slower and more long-term approaches of service provision and criminal diversion, and these are likely to grow louder as the election season is upon us. Yet, the existence of proven alternatives and the dialogue now underway offer a hopeful new approach that deserves our support.
Voices (formerly Community Partners) is a column that features the work of Washington State non-profit organizations outside The Alliance for Equal Justice. These organizations promote equality, encourage grassroots participation, address the needs of under-served communities, and help low-income people succeed.