City Councilmember and Queen Anne resident Tim Burgess wants to modify the way Seattle deals with its street population - the mentally ill as well as the addicted.
The Councilmember points to surveys showing that two-thirds of people living and working downtown are troubled by aggressive panhandling. More surprising is the Metropolitan Improvement District's 2009 survey showing that a quarter of all Seattle residents avoid downtown whenever possible because of the potential for street crimes.
During the 1970s, the era of "If it feels good, do it," the theory that alcohol and drug addiction are diseases with no element of choice, took hold in Seattle. By 1980, Seattle had changed its approach to street drunks and junkies, camouflaging the problem under the benign label of "homeless." Such troubled souls were not just to be tolerated but sustained in their lifestyle.
Soon word seeped out through the gutters of America that Seattle was the place to be if you wanted to devote yourself to drugs and alcohol. New arrivals appeared on the streets of the recently revived Pioneer Square every day. They were younger, tougher, and more likely to be using hard drugs than the home-grown street population that previously inhabited the area. By the mid-1980s fights, stabbings and threatening behavior among themselves and toward others in the area began driving businesses out of Pioneer Square.
Prior to the influx, developers renovated the Interurban Building at First and Yesler and filled it with software start-ups, sports agents and other growing businesses only to see the vacancy rate soar. Eventually, the building's price had to be dropped by several million to unload it. City Hall's response was tax increases for the remaining businesses through a Business Improvement District so flower baskets could be hung from lampposts and other window dressing draped over the problem.
Pioneer Square erupted into street fights and murders when useless policies were combined with especially ineffective leadership during Mayor Paul Schell's term. Schell's successor, Greg Nichols, put police back on the streets but by then the street population had free reign throughout downtown and beyond.
Seattle Police Department records show that major crime in the downtown area increased by 22 percent in 2009 following another jump in 2008. The Downtown District Council ranked crime as the area's primary problem some years ago. Recently Seattle residents visiting New York said they felt safer in Times Square at 2 in the morning than they did at 2 in the afternoon on Third between Pike and Pine where drug deals are frequent throughout the day.
Councilmember Burgess wants to specify what constitutes aggressive panhandling so it can be more readily addressed in the courts. He also calls for expanded and coordinated street outreach programs and increased housing combined with support services.
Mayor McGinn initially favored the approach but seems to be caving to the street lobby. Now he is concerned that a legal definition of aggressive panhandling may target panhandlers. It's not that he opposes the proposals, he says, it just that he would not have made them. At a time when the City Council seems to be moving into the driver's seat, the Mayor's ruminations may not be a factor in the decision.
Burgess says, ". . . we are approaching a dangerous tipping point where perceptions of crime and unsafe conditions could lead to long-term negative consequences."
Unfortunately it already has taken a long-term toll on many downtown blocks. The proposals before the Council may not rescue damaged areas but do represent a step in the right direction for the first time in decades.[[In-content Ad]]