Last week, banners went up at the former Seattle Times building in South Lake Union proclaiming, “You sweep. We occupy” and “Sweeps makes squats.” The Common ¢ents group is calling for “squatter activists” to take over vacant residences and other structures, as they have with the former Seattle Times and KING-5 studio buildings and private residences throughout the city.
The group says the city’s piecemeal efforts of “tiny houses, legal encampments, RV parks, enhanced sweeps, expanded private housing development or the devout practice of ‘Housing First’” won’t solve the homeless crisis. Instead, it seeks to develop alternative housing solutions, including the most common-sense option of them all, it says: reclaiming vacant buildings.
It asserts that these “represent a potential for new forms of community engagement” that don’t need to be “homeless-centric,” such as transitional housing and community services.
Seattle has a history of activists successfully transforming vacant buildings into organizations serving specific communities. In the 1970s, the United Indian People’s Council took over Fort Lawton in Magnolia and ultimately built the Daybreak Star Cultural Center, and Chicano and Latino activists occupied the school building that would become El Centro de la Raza in Beacon Hill. African-American activists moved into the former Colman School building in the Central Area in the mid-‘80s and stayed for eight years, before The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle finally bought it to build the Northwest African American Museum.
In more recent years, with opposite results, squatters occupied Horace Mann Elementary School in the Central Area just before the start of its renovation. They hoped to form the Africatown Center for Education and Innovation, which would provide job training and youth activities; instead, four suspects were forced out and arrested.
And the City of Seattle considered transforming the former Fire Station 39 in Lake City to a day center and shelter. The Union Gospel Mission and Nickelsville had used the building as an emergency homeless shelter for two years, but it’s now slated for affordable housing and Seattle Preschool Program classrooms.
However, these were public buildings — the Common ¢ents group is asking for the addresses of even vacant, privately owned properties for the homeless to occupy.
Some squatters are respectful enough to keep the vacant buildings they occupy safe and clean, as evidenced by some rooms in the former Seattle Times building that were kept “relatively neat and almost homey,” as described in one of the publication’s stories about the eviction of several hundred people last September. But more squatted structures are usually left in utter disrepair, with destroyed interiors and garbage, drug paraphernalia, human waste and stolen items strewn about.
The then-Department of Planning and Development said there were 200 vacant, unsecured buildings in the city last October that had complaints filed against them, according to KOMO News.
The climate in Seattle has changed in the last 20 years. If Common ¢ents is serious about organizing official “squat-ins” at vacant properties, it should aim its message to those who will present its case in the best possible way: the homeless people who are conscientious about safety and neatness. Presenting such different, yet plausible ideas to the city and/or social services agencies will also set its cause on the right course — legally. It’s just common sense to do so.