Letters from Seattle: Homeless crisis and downtown
Not everyone is supportive of a proposed Seattle homeless ordinance that could make it even easier to camp in the city, particularly people who aren’t on the council dais.
Michael Hirschler spoke at a council meeting shortly before its members accepted the legislation drafted by the ACLU, Columbia Legal Services and other homeless advocates. He wasn’t alone. A representative with Jewel Hospitality also testified that the venue has lost more than $100,000 in revenue over the past year due to the homeless tent issue outside its doors and windows. He said that multiple clients have said they would not use the venue because of the trash, needles, and tents.
“There is somehow this line drawn between compassion and accountability,” Hirschler said. “If you say people should be accountable for their actions, you are painted as not being compassionate … as we move toward this encampment ordinance, it takes us further way from accountability. And really, how is it being compassionate?”
Letters about the Seattle homeless crisis
Hirschler works at a popular downtown hotel, overseeing hundreds of employees. It is from that perspective, and as a Seattle resident, that he was prompted to write to council members in January — after employee stories kept piling up.
The letter related the story of one female employee who was grabbed by a homeless man while walking to work. He trapped her in a bear hug. Despite her screams, he wouldn’t let her go. Luckily, a tourist from Texas came to her aid. She tried to report it to 911 but gave up after not getting anywhere with the dispatcher, who didn’t know where First Avenue and Stewart was. Then there was an African-American employee who was chased by a homeless woman screaming racial slurs at him as he walked to work. All the stories seemed to have a common theme, and no one seemed to be doing anything about it.
“From our perspective, there is no doubt there is this interplay between the homelessness factor, the substance abuse issue, mental illness … you got all this interconnected,” Hirschler said.
“With that first letter we had several incidents in quick succession that finally prompted me to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Hirschler said. “I was talking with an African–American shift engineer, whose worked downtown for 23 years, gets off the bus, walks to work every day, minds his own business, and I listened to his story … he shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘What are you going to do? This is Seattle.’ How awful is that?”
Hirschler noted in his letter that while his hotel receives exceptional response times from the Seattle Fire Department for the most minor of injuries, “it takes over an hour to get a police department response when we call because someone is standing on the street corner shouting obscenities at people walking by.”
The letter prompted a response from Council Member Tim Burgess:
I share your concerns and totally agree with you that the city government has failed to respond effectively to street crime and disorder in many of our neighborhood business districts. As I have said many, many times, we tend to accept the false belief that maintaining safe and orderly streets somehow represents targeting the poor/homeless or somehow represents a violation of essential civil rights. I’ve encountered this crazy belief since the day I arrived on the city council.
Burgess also notes, however, that there are other issues that contribute to the problem: low police numbers, 911 call center lacking upgrades, and a lack of clear direction from city leaders.
But all that — the employee horror stories, the letter, and the single response — was just the beginning.
Seattle homeless crisis grows
Six months later, the scene around Hirschler’s hotel had only gotten worse. There was one homeless man who was hanging out in front of the building. He would smoke crack at the entrance, Hirschler said. And he would frequently masturbate in front of people on the street — guests, employees, families, children. He notes many instances when the man, covered in vomit, would expose himself to families attempting to take photos of the waterfront at Union Street.
The hotel had called police “countless times” about the matter. This and other continuing instances prompted another letter.
“Every single one of you has a role to play in the lawless behavior that is rampant within this city. As city council members, you have chosen to prioritize your personal agendas ahead of what is best for the public good,” Hirschler wrote.
This time, Hirschler got three responses: from Council Members Lisa Herbold, Sally Bagshaw, and from Burgess. Burgess, he notes, was the only candid answer he got.
“I groaned when I read your letter,” Burgess writes back. “Again, I’m sorry city government has let you and your employees down yet again.”
The second letter also got Hirschler a meeting with city officials from the human services and police departments, and the city attorney’s office. It turns out, the crack-smoking man in question had been known to police for about five years. Even when he did get a police response, it generally wasn’t long before he was back on the streets.
“We talked through the issues and what they are capable of doing,” Hirschler said. “Ultimately, it comes down to the city council and the laws that are passed. If you were to ask any city officials, off the record, you would find the city council makes it virtually impossible for our officials to effectively police and effectively prosecute.”
Hirschler felt he was speaking for himself as a Seattle resident, but also as a person who oversees many other employees working in the downtown area. He said that in his position he stays out of controversial issues — just like the Seattle homeless matter — however, the issue had become so significant he felt he had to speak up. In September, he showed up at a Seattle council meeting to repeat his concerns. That was the same meeting that the council accepted the bill drafted by the ACLU.
He was in a line of people wanting to comment on the camping issue — some who demand the city not sweep encampments and others who related their negative experiences with the camps. Hirschler’s message was patrons of downtown and those who work there need better solutions — they need civility.
“Because we have said that individual clearly has an issue, somehow it makes it less criminal, less inappropriate, and not so uncivil,” he said. “At some point do we say, ‘Wait a second, we need to take care of that gentleman. We need to help him.’ But we also need to say that there are people going about their daily lives and they should not have to accept that as part of their daily lives.”
“Giving them additional rights that take away from the rights of people that live in the city, work in the city, and visit the city and to create a situation that becomes so cumbersome on our city departments to do anything about it, it’s just going to take us further away from an environment appropriate for everyone,” Hirschler said.
The council continues to consider the bill that would allow people to camp on certain public properties. It is expected to revisit the legislation soon. In the meantime, Hirschler said that things have not gotten any better downtown.
“This very weekend, an employee taped on their phone an incident with a man who was completely naked, yelling and screaming crossing First Avenue at Union Street,” Hirschler said. “It was Saturday afternoon, a bunch of people waiting to cross the street, probably tourists. And this man started swiping at someone standing on the corner.”
“Our people are constantly battling against this street scene,” he said.