OP-Ed -Homelessness is a nuanced and delicate issue
By Ruby Tuesday Romero
The ongoing crisis of homelessness is a delicate and nuanced situation. Regardless of how the person suffered housing loss, they did, and that alone, is a traumatic experience.
The State’s ‘RIght of Way Initiative’ is a partnership between Dept of Commerce, WADOT, KCRHA, and law enforcement to remove encampments from public rights of way. To date, the initiative has successfully closed four encampments in King County and are currently working in three others along public sidewalks, roads, overpasses, etc.
So…What does ‘Right of Way’ mean?
In the ADA sense it means sidewalks, hallways, entrances to buildings, and bathrooms need to be accessible to individuals with disabilities. In Seattle, the minimum width for a sidewalk to be considered within ADA standards is four feet of Pedestrian Clear Zone.
From the DOT standpoint, land is granted, or reserved, as a Right of Way for transportation purposes. Especially highways, but also public footpaths, or transit and transit stations, and allows access for workers to maintain infrastructure.
Living in a public right of way is not illegal.
It is considered unsafe and can be a distraction to drivers, impedes on infrastructure maintenance, and would be considered a place not meant for human habitation. None of which are against the law.
Living unsheltered is unsafe, period.
A report published by UW concluded that homeless individuals were 19x more likely to die by homicide, 5x more likely to take their own life, and had a mortality rate that is 1.5x higher than the general public in King County.
Living in a tent anywhere is considered ‘not meant for human habitation’. In order for a dwelling to be considered habitable, the unit needs access to vital utilities (like running water and electricity) and it needs to meet safety standards. In fact, a property owner could be fined if they let someone live in a tent on their property because it is considered unfit living conditions.
Why is it going so slow?
The language in the initiative is very specific as to what f interventions are allowed. It specifies that funds are for new approaches in outreach, rapid rehousing, and long term housing.. Meaning, the KCRHA has limited options for the solutions they can offer. Funding produced an additional 80 beds which helped house 118 individuals with a retention rate of 93%.
Procurement, planning, and construction of units are the most costly and time consuming portion of the solution, but are the most important. The authority won't be able to offer anyone services or navigate anyone into housing without shelter beds, and the price tag isn't enticing to those footing the bill. The most recent count of available shelter beds across the entire King County shelter system is depressing (just five available beds on March 8th), and all the beds allocated for in the initiative are fully utilized. The beds planned to come online soon, have been delayed
Sweeps are unconstitutional.
In regards to sweeps, the Supreme Court ruled the forced disbandment of a homeless encampment as unconstitutional. This ruling made it so cities could not penalize or sweep individuals if there is no shelter available to offer them. Seattle officially adopted the “No Shelter, No Sweeps” policy last year.