Standing up for safer neighborhoods: New coalition, City of Seattle weigh in on confronting homelessness

By Lindsay Peyton

A new coalition has formed representing Seattle’s Ballard, Phinney, Queen Anne, Greenwood and Magnolia neighborhoods – and the group is ready to take a stand on crime and homelessness.

Speak Out Seattle, created on Jan. 5, is an advocacy group trying to end neighborhood crime, drug dealing and homelessness.

“It’s a group of neighborhood associations, business owners and residents,” co-founder Harley Lever said. “Nobody’s satisfied with the situation going on in Seattle. The extremes are the voice, and I think regular people are frustrated.”

The organization clarified the “situation” in a letter to city council member Mike O’Brien, district 6, which was hand-delivered to him, as well as other select representatives and Mayor Ed Murray, on Tuesday, Jan. 10.

In the letter, Speak Out Seattle chair Elisabeth James wrote, “People belong in homes, indoor shelters and/or in rehabilitation facilities where they can get the help they need. Not outside in camps.”

She said the city’s focus should be directed to rapid re-housing efforts and social services to place “unsheltered individuals out of homelessness and toward independent living.”

James added that some individuals “have either chosen ‘urban camping’ as a lifestyle choice or are criminals taking advantage of the homelessness crisis to deal drugs and/or engage in property and violent crimes that hurt our vulnerable unsheltered individuals, as well as our neighborhoods.”

Lever pointed to the plan created for Seattle by Barbara Poppe, which offers a number of recommendations to curb the homeless crisis in the city.

“They’re highly effective and lower cost recommendations than what the city has done,” Lever said. “Unfortunately, the city has gone in the opposite direction.”

He feels that the voices of Seattle residents, business owners and community groups have been drowned out by paid lobbyists with direct access to city council.

Creating Speak Out Seattle is one way to build a stronger voice, Lever added.

The group is highlighting a few main issues – the rapid rise of homelessness and tent encampments, an epidemic of opiate use and insufficient community policing resources.

“We need access to rehabilitation facilities and access to detox,” Lever said. “And we’d like to have a more robust police force to address crime. If you’re a heroin addict, you often turn to crime to support your habit.”

He believes that property crime is on the rise due to the high number of opiate users in the city.

The top priority is turning homelessness around, Lever said.

“We have the housing, we just have to use it in an intelligent way,” he said. “We have the ability to get everyone inside. But the city is not following the recommendations of the Poppe report. This issue has been brewing – and there’s no reason for it to exist.”

Council member O’Brien said he has read the letter and is ready to speak with the coalition’s members.

“They touched on a lot of ideas we share,” he said. “People shouldn’t be outside. People should have the services they need. But there’s a difference between saying that’s the way it should work – and making it work that way.”

O’Brien said that while the city wants to do everything possible to reduce homelessness, the number of people living on the streets and in tents has risen.

“We did all this work in 2015, and it wasn’t nearly enough,” he said. “The problem is so overwhelming. Despite all the good work, we’re still losing ground.”

O’Brien said all parties involved have been frustrated with the issue. “I’m open to criticism, and I’m open to new ideas,” he said. “I want to hear the coalition’s ideas. All I can really say is that we’re going to do more than we’ve done in the past. We’re going to make the situation better for a lot of people.”

He added that the city needs greater resources to tackle the homelessness crisis – and that he is worried about funding cuts from the current political administration.

“We have to be honest about the challenges that we face,” he said. “I understand the frustration. These are real problems, and we’re trying to figure out a way to address them. I know the city can do a better job, and we’re trying to improve our procedures. Let’s combine our resources as opposed to making enemies of each other.”

O’Brien said he is willing to schedule meetings with concerned individuals, as well as community groups. He also encourages residents to join volunteer efforts and support groups like the Ballard Food Bank.

Lever said Speak Out Seattle already has 50 members and welcomes new members.

He said that the group will include a range of political viewpoints and does not seek any reduction of public spending on social programming – rather transparency and efficacy for money spent.

“We want a win-win recommendation,” he said. “We’re trying to rally the people and get a broad base of support. Let’s use proven solutions to get people into housing.”

The organization is planning a community meeting in early February. For more information, email www.speakoutseattle.com.
To contact council member Mike O’Brien, visit www.seattle.gov/council/obrien/.

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