Passionate discussion accompanies homeless encampment site proposal

A now-shuttered Interbay coffee shop well known for its weekly open mic nights played host to one final evening of intense discussion on Aug. 17.
This time, the voices speaking out in the former Q Café (3223 15th Ave. W.) were expressing their concerns, or support for, a proposed homeless encampment that would be placed just a few blocks away.

Approximately 200 people were on hand for the 90-minute question-and-answer session, with speakers at times being cut-off at the microphone after going past their allotted 90-second window, a timeframe designed to accommodate as many people as possible.

One of three sites

In July, the Mayor’s Office released a list of seven potential sites across the city that could host sanctioned tent encampments. Of those seven, three were chosen as preferred and recommended for use this year, including a lot at 3234 17th Ave. W. that could host approximately 70 residents.

The recommendations came after the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) reviewed approximately 135 vacant parcels (many adjacent to each other) owned by the city. The original ordinance unanimously adopted by the council in March limited the locations to unused, non-residential zone properties, excluding park properties.

After the initial parcel analysis and an interdepartmental review, a total of 27 sites were identified or suggested, with that figure then whittled down to 13. A further evaluation eliminated another seven locations due to issues like topography, while one location was added.

That final list — which also incorporated general geographic distribution — was then used to determine the three locations for first-round availability, with the other four listed for potential future use.

While the Interbay site totals 33,500 square feet, a majority is used for Seattle City Light pole storage, limiting the available space to just more than a third of that initial total. When factoring in topography, the useable space spans 8,798 square feet.  

Each site — the other two proposed locations included the first round are in Ballard and SODO, respectively — would be permitted for one year, with the possibility of renewal each additional year. No site would host for more than 24 consecutive months.

A safe community?

Throughout the evening, city staffers stressed that sanctioned encampments were not viewed as a solution for Seattle’s homeless but rather another step in a process toward permanent housing.

“My experience — and our goal of course is to make homelessness rare, brief and one-time — is the encampments are just one tool,” Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw told the crowd. “They’re not the answer.”

Along with Bagshaw, Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim, Seattle Police Department chief strategic adviser Virginia Gleason, DPD director Diane Sugimura and Mark Putnam of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County were among those on hand to listen to public testimony.

Reaction to the proposal was mixed, with speakers split about 50-50 in their support.

Among those speaking out in support of the proposal was Susan Russell. A former union cement mason, she was rear-ended by an uninsured motorist and went through her savings before becoming homeless.

“I just want people to know that homelessness can happen to anyone,” she said. “We never know what tomorrow brings, that the person that’s standing next to you could be the next. And we need to have compassion for one another, and we need to come together and help each other, because we are all the community — the ones with housing and the ones without. We’re human beings.”

Russell also stressed the importance of having a regulated space where homeless people can find safety in numbers.

However, Brooke Barnes, who owns a site directly to the south of the proposed encampment location, raised concerns about whether the land itself is safe for people to inhabit, as the former location of a dry cleaner.

Barnes said the site is contaminated with TCEs (trichloroethylene) and also noted that he feels the neighborhood is getting railroaded in the selection process.

“If cancer is a problem, TCE is a problem,” he said.

Others expressed worries over crime and safety if an encampment were to move in or what it could mean for property values.

Community engagement

Owen Sallie, who was on the Tent City 3 host committee when the encampment came to the Seattle Pacific University campus, said the school had a good experience with the group.

While acknowledging that the encampments are not a long-term solution, Sallie said if it creates more space and safer places for people at night, it’s a good thing.

“It’s not a solution; it doesn’t solve the problem in the end,” Sallie said. “But the more spaces you can make for people, and particularly the more spaces you can make for people like Tent City 3 that are organized and self-managed and able to care for themselves, that makes more space further out for other folks who are more vulnerable.”

Sallie said hosting the encampment also made for a good learning opportunity for students, while giving them a chance to interact with homeless members of the community. In turn, that created more movement from those students toward advocacy and a permanent solution.

District 4 (Northeast Seattle) City Council candidate Michael Maddux was also on hand; he said he wanted to see firsthand what the community’s concerns were over the proposal.

After touring Tent City 3 in Shoreline earlier in the week, he urged others do to the same to learn more about how their structure works.

“What we see there is community engagement; it creates community among individuals who are down on their luck for whatever reason,” Maddux said.

“They govern and police themselves. They make sure the neighborhood is taken care of. There’s a lot of great benefits to having tent cities in neighborhoods.”

According to city estimates, the one-time start-up costs for the encampments total $32,000. Annual lease costs and services for encampment residents — approximately $200,000 — is already provided in the city’s 2015 budget.

The city hopes to have at least one regulated encampment functional by the end of the year.

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