A camp-in for the homeless

Steve Leigh reports from Seattle on a campout and camp-in at City Hall to draw attention to the city's lack of real action on the problem of homelessness.

Activists stage a "die-in" in Seattle's City Hall to protest homelessnessActivists stage a "die-in" in Seattle's City Hall to protest homelessness

TWO YEARS after the city of Seattle declared a "homelessness state of emergency," the Housing for All Coalition and other activists organized a campout and camp-in at City Hall on November 1 to draw attention to how little has been done to improve conditions.

The following morning, they held a "die-in" to highlight reports that at least 66 people have died due to homelessness in Seattle in 2017 so far. The coalition explained why it was protesting.

It's been two years since the city of Seattle declared a homelessness state of emergency, and the homelessness crisis has only deepened...The city's response to this crisis isn't working, in large part because it fails to reckon with the shortage of deeply affordable housing. City policies end up punishing homeless people rather than giving them a leg up.

Nearly 1 percent of Seattle's population is without regular housing. The yearly "one night count" in January found 3,857 people sleeping outside in the city. This doesn't count those in shelters and other temporary housing.

Official policies have made things worse. The police regularly ticket and tow cars that homeless people live in, and the city has a policy of homeless "sweeps" that shut down homeless camps, confiscate belongings and scatter people to the wind.

Before the camp-in, more than 140 people lined up to speak at the City Council budget hearing, with hundreds more packing out the City Council chamber and an overflow room.

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SPEAKERS AND campers had two main demands: a new head tax on Seattle's largest businesses to pay for public housing and an end to the removal of unauthorized camp sites.

Speaker after speaker addressed the cruelty of chasing people from their homes with no alternative shelter available. Sweeps of homeless camps merely move the unhoused population around the city with the people swept away in even more desperate conditions after losing any sense of stability as well as their belongings.

"They are already going through a traumatic experience, and then for you to sweep them and make them move along to somewhere else? There's nowhere else to go," said Hattie Rhodes, who is homeless. "I have seen the sweeps over and over firsthand. They are traumatizing when police come and push you from place to place, you have nowhere to go, and what little stability you have is ruined."

"What is it going to take for you to stop sweeping human beings off the streets like they're garbage," said another speaker. "Sweep is the operative word. These are our unhoused neighbors. These people are dying."

Though the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of people who turned out opposed the homeless sweeps, not everyone agreed, including the interim mayor and former cop Tim Burgess, who stresses "health and safety" concerns.

In fact, health and safety will always be an issue as long as people are forced to sleep outside due to lack of affordable housing. Politicians like Burgess and most City Council members put the cart before the horse. They claim to support more affordable housing in the future, but want to send homeless people into the void now.

They tell homeless people to leave the only shelter they know in return for the hope of better housing in the future. But housing built in 2018 or after, if it ever comes, doesn't solve the problem of where to sleep tonight.

Until the city can guarantee a decent place to live for everyone who needs housing, it has no rational argument to deny people the right to camp out or sleep in their cars. Provide decent housing, and the "problem" of homeless camps will go away. Don't provide decent housing, and no amount of repression will eliminate homeless camps.

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THE REAL threat to most politicians isn't homelessness but the homeless. Political leaders respond to businesses who don't want the homeless disturbing their profits by driving away sensitive tourists and other shoppers. Their response is to move the homeless along rather than solve the problem.

In Seattle, which is dominated by the Democratic Party, politicians will rarely admit their true motivations. They shed crocodile tears and promise future "affordable" housing---most of which isn't actually affordable to those who need it the most.

The former mayor's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda program, for example, mandates developers provide a limited amount of " affordable " housing---housing that those at 60 percent of median income can supposedly afford. This leaves out at least the bottom 30 percent of the population, those who need housing the most.

Their real priorities are shown in the city budget nearly half of which is set aside for "public safety." The police department alone takes up over 30 percent--over $300 million--of the general fund budget, a higher percentage than the military takes of the U.S. budget.

The city is involved in a multibillion-dollar expansion of the downtown Convention Center. Current estimates are that this will cost $1.6 billion. This will be funded by public borrowing, which will profit large banks.

The city had planned a $160 million police station, which would have been the most expensive in North America. This was only stopped by a movement of community activists called "Block the Bunker."

Housing all the homeless people in Seattle in decent accommodation would cost the city less than half of the cost of the Convention Center expansion.

There are partial solutions on offer that some politicians support. A head tax of $100 per employee of the largest 2,200 businesses that gross over $5 million a year in Seattle would raise tens of millions for new low-income housing.

This tax proposal is sponsored by City Council Members Kirsten Harris-Talley, Mike O'Brien and socialist Kshama Sawant, but four of the seven council members are opposed, with two on the fence. Those opposed are worried about the effect on booming Seattle's business climate. They are more concerned with maximizing profits than with the need of people for a place to live.

In spite of official opposition, the Housing for All coalition and other activists are taking the fight to a new level. They were told that they had to leave City Hall when it officially closed at 9 p.m. They declared that they would face arrest and the police and city officials backed off. The campers stayed put all night.

After the campout on the City Hall Plaza and the camp-in within the City Hall, activists folded up their tents--but the fight for affordable housing and an end to victimization of the homeless hasn't folded. This important struggle for basic human rights against corporate profit will continue.