Seattle, the city with the dubious distinction of the nation’s third largest population of homeless people, plans to fight that fire of a crisis with gasoline, allotting more than $1.1 million — not toward services, shelters, and programs to help people find shelter — but to erect miles of razor-topped fencing to block underpasses, highway access, and other areas commonly used as transitory encampments.
“It’s a statewide issue,” Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) spokesman, Travis Phelps, told the Seattle Times of sizable camps which often return as soon as police perform one of the highly contentious ‘sweeps’ — wherein police force campers out and throw away all their belongings — purported to be for public safety. “We’re going to be collaborating with cities and other jurisdictions, to make sure that folks who are experiencing homelessness and other issues are not camping underneath highways and other spots, and putting themselves at risk.”
Two RV fires and two deaths in an area loosely termed ‘the Jungle’ in Sodo — located under a highway overpass — led WSDOT to allocate almost two miles of fencing for its Spokane Street Viaduct in the name of safety for the campers, as well as for travelers on the interstate above. Broad sections of fence have already been assembled around particularly troubled areas.
“Fencing crews have cordoned off nearly all the space below,” the Times continues, discussing the area, “from the Duwamish River to First Avenue South. The extra-strength fence stands 10-foot-4, with small mesh that’s hard for climbers to grab. A supplemental shipment of thin blades was discreetly cinched along the top, resembling common bird spikes that repel crows and gulls.
“City staff say they’re averting the sort of incident that occurred in Atlanta, where a span of Interstate 85 collapsed in a March fire.”
Road repair equipment went up in flames in that incident, allegedly after spreading from a fire built for warmth by an unhoused man camping under the interstate — but activists, attorneys, and advocates peg responsibility for the damaged highway on failings of the government, not a single individual. Like the Seattle fires and deaths, the Atlanta collapse ripped off the scab on the city’s homeless issue — bitterly dividing residents on blame, cause, and solution for these problems.
Seattle’s homelessness debacle pits vitriolic business owners and residents against a ballooning population of people lacking shelter and various rights’ advocates wishing to apply more than a bandage to the problem, who have grown weary of the State’s penchant for brute force and disregard for the law in its tactics.
Thanks in part to soaring rent and real estate prices brought about by lack of housing space as the city continues experiencing a moderate economic boom, finding shelter for the houseless without the creation of new facilities has become nearly impossible.
In fact, the housing, homeless, and shelter crises — inextricable issues in a growing number of U.S. cities — have provided civil rights attorneys and advocates grounds to contend the clearing of camps violates campers’ protections from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Thus, they say — without sufficient shelter space or affordable housing — unhoused individuals should have the right to camp in public.
In other words, they’re fighting an unseemly battle to make homelessness a right.
It isn’t for Seattle’s lack of attempts to solve its homeless emergency, declared two years ago — this year, alone, taxpayers and private donors will ultimately fork over $196 million “for shelters, permanent housing and other services,” the Times reports.
Further, critics argue, choosing to fence off vast tracts of space prone to group campsites encourages people without permanent shelter to simply migrate to another area — forcing the problem elsewhere without solving anything.
With at least 11,600 people counted as houseless recently in Seattle’s King County — up from last year’s 10,730 — no matter the physical result of erecting dangerous fences to sweep the homeless crisis under the rug, the damage in PR will undoubtedly blemish the city’s once-welcoming, charitable reputation.
GeekWire, however, cites a higher statistic from real estate company, Zillow, in an articlefleshing out housing data to prove the scope of the emergency:
“Zillow estimates Seattle’s homeless population totals 12,763 people, well behind New York (76,341) and Los Angeles (61,398),” writes Nat Levy. “The only other city with a homeless population over 10,000 people, according to Zillow estimates, is San Diego.”
This isn’t to say those in favor of fencing and camp sweeps lack compassion or do not care about unhoused people; but, the crisis has reached unsustainable proportions — and tempers and patience are wearing thin.
Daniel Malone, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, laments the tepid results of finding homes for the houseless — the city claims it was able to find space for 46 people — following the latest sweep of Seattle, telling the Times,
“There definitely wasn’t enough shelter for the number of people moved.”
Malone, who remains optimistic, echoed advocates from Seattle and other cities enduring housing crunches and skyrocketing populations of homeless people, asserting plainly,
“You wouldn’t need all the fences, the hygiene centers and the rest areas if everybody had a place to live.”