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Former Seattle mayor: Rise in homeless camps ‘a matter of fixing the shelter system’

A homeless camp in South Lake Union. (Jason Rantz, KTTH)

As Seattle’s homeless crisis continues, a group of city businesses and neighborhood groups has issued a letter to local leaders, asking that they deal with the growing number of encampments. Former Mayor Greg Nickels stopped by KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show to talk about what the city needs to do to tackle that problem amid the ongoing pandemic.

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The letter called on leaders to clear encampments out of parks in the name of public safety, citing the presence of garbage, drug-use, and unsafe conditions for neighborhood residents. For Nickels, that’s one piece of the puzzle, but helping the city’s homeless also goes far beyond that as well.

“We need to deal with those underlying issues, and we need to deal with it in a humane setting,” he said.

To that end, he suggests providing subsidized affordable housing as a means to deal with those underlying issues. That also means ensuring that Seattle has a robust shelter system with consistently available space and livable conditions.

“It’s a matter of fixing the shelter system, because clearly it isn’t working for many people as they would rather be outdoors,” Nickels pointed out.

In February, Seattle councilmembers grilled leaders from the Navigation Team over their clearance of homeless encampments, pointing to low rates of accepted offers of shelter (around 24 percent according to data presented by the Human Services Department).

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At the time, councilmembers cited the fact that there were roughly 12 available shelter beds on average a night, making it difficult to present a “meaningful offer of shelter” when an encampment is cleared by outreach workers.

The council voted to effectively end the Navigation Team in early August, before funding for a scaled-down version was approved this week, primarily to manage outreach to encampments for the remainder of 2020.

A 2021 budget proposal from current Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan would also add 425 short-term shelter beds, in hopes of giving those moved out of camps somewhere to land. That measure has yet to be approved, but will soon be part of a larger debate over next year’s budget between the mayor’s office and city council.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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