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On July 27, in what felt like one of our warmest evenings of the summer, I joined almost 200 neighbors and community members in Ballard to have a conversation about the issues I’ve been hearing most about in recent months – homelessness, property crime, and drug addiction. The Safe and Healthy Communities Public Forum (video available here) was an opportunity for community to come together to give feedback on solutions to these challenges from a public health and public safety perspective.
Before breaking up into small group table discussions, the event kicked off with Assistant Chief Steve Wilske from the Seattle Police Department, Alison Eisinger, Executive Director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, and Lisa Daugaard of the Public Defender Association. These speakers helped us to frame the discussion and challenged us to find solutions that would “do no harm”, as Lisa Daugaard stated, and “do the most good,” as Alison Eisinger described.
Similar to what we have heard previously through other community interactions, the concerns of residents’ safety and public health included: more people living outside, public drug consumption and accumulation of used hypodermic needles, vast garbage and human waste accumulation, increased numbers of vehicle living and the limitations of parking, needed bathroom access, disorderly conduct, mental health crises, property crimes including car break-ins, lack of transparency from the City on its investments and work, lack of storage access for people without housing, people inhabiting abandoned houses, accessibility of parks, economic issues including access to jobs, unsafe spaces for bike storage, and sexual harassment on the street.
The following is a list of solutions that were discussed by the residents and community members who attended the forum. This list is not exhaustive of all possible approaches, and many of these types of solutions must work in tandem, but some common themes have emerged. We note the number of tables at which different topics were discussed to give an indication of general interest in the subject, and so attendees can get a sense of what the conversations were like throughout the room.
Immediate Harm Reduction
- Safe Consumption Sites: Eight of the small groups discussed these medically-supervised facilities designed to reduce public drug use and provide a hygienic and safer environment in which individuals are able to consume drugs, which has the potential to drastically reduce the amounts of drug consumption materials in parks and public spaces, and has the potential to save lives.
- Public restrooms access: Quite frankly, everyone needs access to a bathroom. Eight of the thirteen groups found that all the neighborhoods in District did not have enough publicly accessibly bathrooms and for both unhoused and housed people, our communities need these spaces.
- Additional garbage containers: Both housed and unhoused residents have limited access to garbage containers throughout District 6 and the addition of these could likely decrease the amount of trash accumulation in public spaces. Six out of the thirteen tables supported this idea.
- Garbage Cleanup: Six of the thirteen groups favored the City prioritizing garbage cleanup of areas of people living without homes, without removing people from those spaces.
- Sharp containers: In conjunction with safe consumption spaces and other public access needs, five groups said that District 6 lacked the necessary sharps disposal containers to decrease the amount of drug consumption materials in public spaces.
- Better street lighting: Many individuals have felt unsafe navigating public spaces during nighttime hours and one group believed better lighting would increase neighborhood safety.
Access to Services and Shelter
- Vehicle living: Due to the lack of affordable housing in our region, individuals and families have resorted to alternative methods of living spaces – including the outdoors and vehicles. There have been attempts to address the vehicle living issue through safe parking zones and lots. Unfortunately, the capacity does not meet the need and more safe areas are necessary. Four of the thirteen tables discussed these issues and solutions.
- Treatment on demand: For individuals who have made the healthcare decision to enter treatment for drug and alcohol consumption, the majority of the tables encouraged the immediate availability for this type of service.
- Reduce barriers: A range of barriers prevent many different types of people from being able to access shelter and permanent housing, including internal regulations excluding pets, lack of access for people with disabilities, and prohibitions of drug consumption. Two groups discussed removing these barriers.
- Community neighborhood service center: One group made the suggestion that the City should invest in a singular resource center for the district where people can engage with both police officers, City staff, and service providers.
Role of Law Enforcement
- Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion: LEAD is a program currently operating in the East and West Precinct, which allows police officers to refer people to community-based treatment and support services instead of making an arrest. Ten out of the thirteen tables discussed bringing LEAD to the North Precinct.
- Stop displacement of people living without homes: Current city policy directs workers to clean up areas where people are living in outdoor spaces, which is accompanied with outreach services and often removal of people and their belongings. Six of the thirteen groups saw this as wasting resources and favored the City to cease this type of displacement.
- Rethink parking restrictions: Four of the thirteen tables discussed how parking restrictions like the inability to park from 2am-5am actually “did harm and did not do to the most good”.
- More micro policing capacity: Most of the groups were aware that police resources were limited because the police have directed much of their attention to homelessness issues. While many of the proposals could deter the need for that specific type of police response, increased micro policing could mean more police officers inside the communities building relationships and having the ability to address other necessary requests including property crimes. Three groups discussed this idea during their conversations.
- Eliminate outdoor living: One table made the recommendation that the City should be making investments into preventing any outdoor living and vehicle residency.
- Support a crisis app for SPD: The SPD recently got a federal grant to invest in Code for America, which is an app that provides health details of members of our community that deal with behavioral health issues. One group supported this issue.
Systemic and Large-Scale Solutions
- Mental health funding: Individuals experiencing behavioral health issues was a highly mentioned topic in the group conversations. Six of the thirteen groups urged drastic increases in mental health funding. And when incidents happen, the public and the individuals engaged need an outlet that isn’t necessarily the police.
- Affordable and accessible housing: Homelessness continues to rise and the need for affordable housing is also increasing. Three groups suggested that the City and region needs to make more investments into affordable housing that is accessible for all people.
- Impact fees: Two groups discussed that larger-scale business should pay impact fees to help address many of the public safety and public health issues.
- Transparency, communication, and education: The City and our departments managing public safety and public health can streamline communications and make the work transparent to the public. Three groups also believed the City needs to invest in education for both housed and unhoused people about what services are available.
The vast majority of comments that I heard from the tables underscores a basic truth: everyone needs support at different moments of their life – and that support happens through different methods, including family, friends, faith-based organizations, and government and community resources. Many people suggested that providing that support, and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable, will actually increase the health and safety of all of our communities. It continues to be a huge challenge for us, as some of the issues we have discussed are a result of the continual decline of state and federal funding for support services. For example, Washington state ranked as 48th worst in prevalence of mental illness and lowest rates of access to care. Nevertheless, I heard a sense of urgency from this group to explore how the City could take a leadership role in providing mental health treatment and other large-scale solutions.
As for specific next steps, I will use this feedback to develop budget proposals and projects, in cooperation with my colleagues on Council, that reflect the priorities I heard that evening, and what I’ve been hearing from many of you in different forums these past few months. I hope to have a follow-up event that delves into these proposed solutions and more as we go into our budget season this Fall, and present specific budget tradeoffs for community input. We will follow up with you shortly with a date and location for an event in late September. In the meantime, we will be in touch over email and on our blog as we solidify our ideas, hear from more experts on homelessness, and endeavor to be as transparent as possible in our approach.
Thank you for engaging in this conversation with me.