David Ryder / Reuters

Seattle mayor defends plan to open tent cities to curb rising homelessness

Homeless population fears that the camps would be segregated and administered by outside organizations

Seattle city officials on Friday defended plans to open three tent encampments in response to rising homelessness, saying a compromise is necessary to ensure that thousands of people have a safe place to sleep while the city works on more permanent solutions.

“We must act now to provide immediate relief for the 2,800 unsheltered homeless people identified in Seattle during last month’s One Night Count,” Jason Kelly, Mayor Ed Murray’s press secretary, told Al Jazeera in an email, referring to the grassroots drive to determine how many homeless live in the city.

City Councilmember Sally J. Clark echoed that sentiment, saying, “In the absence of indoor shelter and immediately available housing, tent cities are a way for people to be safe tonight while we work to get the shelter and housing needed.”

Mayor Murray’s draft ordinance, presented to the City Council last month, would authorize up to three encampments in Seattle, each serving up to 100 people. The camps would be built in non-residential zones, but would not be allowed in city parks, according to the mayor’s office.

The camps would be located within a half-mile of a transit stop and more than one mile from each other. The camps would be administered by social services agencies.

But Seattle’s homeless population is weary of the city’s plan. The proposed camp locations could simply push the homeless to the fringes of society, homeless representatives said during city council meeting this week focused on the proposed legislation. And the plan risks taking away the independence some homeless currently have in administering existing camps.

Roger Franz, who lives in Tent City 3 on Seattle Pacific University, said the bill’s restriction of the new tent cities to non-residential zones amounted to “red-lining,” according to the Seattle Times. Red-lining refers to segregating or discrimination against a certain group of people.

Councilwoman Clark said the camps’ placement would ensure bill approval by Seattle residents.

“I think the proposal to allow them outside of residential zones is an effort at minimizing neighborhood opposition,” Clark told Al Jazeera in an email. “It’s a compromise.”

Residents of another existing tent camp called Nickelsville, located on private property in the International District, said they were opposed to outside organizations running the camps. They say tent residents should manage the encampments.

But the mayor's legislation states that encampments must provide residents access to city social services to allow their transition to permanent housing — making administration by social services agencies a necessity.

The mayor’s proposal followed the announcement last month that homelessness in Seattle has increased 21 percent in the last year.

Since announcing the proposed legislation on Jan. 15, Murray has underscored the need for a more long-term housing solution for Seattle’s homeless, Kelly said. Seattle, he added, is ranked third in the nation for investment in shelter, and transitional and permanent housing for the homeless. And he pointed out that the city had received another $28 million in federal grants to support housing.

The city council will hold a public hearing on Murray’s proposed legislation at the end February, according to Clark, and the council plans to vote on the measure in early March.

A similar proposal to allow tent cities in Seattle was voted down in 2013, and Clark said the support behind the mayor’s new proposal is likely because of the visible rise in homelessness in Seattle.

“If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said the bill had no chance of gaining a majority,” said Clark. “Unfortunately, Seattle has seen a large and visible increase in people living unsheltered.”

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