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Seattle weighs differing approaches to homeless crisis in wake of pandemic

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

The new CEO of the King County Regional Homeless Authority, Marc Dones, has said that they don’t believe in large congregate shelters, and that they think this is a problem that needs to be solved 10 or 15 people at a time. There appears to be a different approach applied by the Compassion Seattle initiative, which seeks to force the city to fund housing for the homeless and clear encampments out of city parks, sidewalks, streets, and all other public areas.

Is there a clash between the two approaches? Seattle Times reporter Scott Greenstone joined the Gee and Ursula Show to discuss.

“Compassion Seattle is focused on what is happening on the streets, … kind of saying, ‘Let’s build new housing.’ But it doesn’t really provide funding for that, it doesn’t say, ‘Let’s have new taxes or anything like that.’ It’s basically saying, ‘Let’s build the spaces so we can get folks off the streets and then let’s get folks off the streets. And if we have to make them, we got to make them,'” he said.

Greenstone says the approaches are not entirely separate, but that Dones does not necessarily control enforcement.

“And Marc Dones — who is going to be running the regional homelessness authority — they’re focused more on what happens when we get those folks off the streets. Marc is not necessarily going to have much in the way of control over enforcement — that’s up to cities. Cities get to say how they want to enforce or if they want to pass laws against homelessness. So we’ve got two different aspects here,” Greenstone said.

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“Obviously, they’re not separate,” Greenstone continued. “If I have a record, and I owe a lot of money to the court because I’ve been fined again and again for camping outside, it’s going to be a lot harder for me to get off the street. So the two things are connected, but they’re kind of separate pieces of the issue.”

With a few higher profile exceptions, he says sweeps have mostly halted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The city has almost completely stopped removing homeless camps,” he pointed out. “They’re still doing a few, and there’s been a few high-profile ones — I think we probably all remember Cal Anderson and the multiple big police actions that happened there — but for the most part, they stopped. I think if you drive through Seattle, you can kind of tell.”

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While sweeps appear to have stopped, Greenstone says the fight against homelessness has generally slowed down as a result of COVID.

“Folks are staying in the same place for a lot longer, pitching tents and being able to stay there. I’ve talked to a lot of folks who live in RVs. They haven’t had to move their RVs every 72 hours like they used to, … but the problem is that everything has kind of stopped, and shelters have gotten a lot smaller because you can’t have 100 people sleeping in a room six inches from each other,” he said.

“You’ve got to empty that room at least halfway out, maybe more — where are you going to send all those people? A lot of them would rather take their chances on the street or out in a tent where they’re not scared of getting COVID.”

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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