- SEATTLE - If you end up homeless in this idyllic Pacific Northwest city,
you can be fined for sitting on the sidewalk. Or for drinking in public.
Or begging too aggressively. Or sleeping overnight in a park.
- Twice this year an encampment known as
''the jungle,'' where about 100 homeless people lived, was bulldozed on
orders from Mayor Paul Schell.
- Such is the attitude toward the homeless
these days, even in cities like this one, which has a long history of compassion
toward the poor. The buzz phrase among social activists is ''compassion
- Weariness with the homeless on the streets,
building since the mid-1990s, is so widespread that the nation's 50 largest
cities, and innumerable smaller ones, have enacted regulations similar
- The move is fueled by frustration that
homelessness persists, as well as fears that homeless people drive business
and tourists from city centers. With no solution to homelessness in sight,
the cities have shifted course.
- New York City cracked down on what Mayor
Rudy Giuliani calls ''quality of life'' crimes, citing even the squeegee
men who wash windshields for spare change.
- In Huntsville, Ala., firefighters washed
away a homeless encampment with hoses last June.
- In Chicago, sidewalks along Lower Wacker
Drive leading into downtown have been fenced to keep the homeless out.
The city sold permits granting owners exclusive use of the sidewalks around
- Tucson created zones downtown from which
people who violate the city's anti-loitering laws can be banned.
- Liberal San Francisco began clearing
homeless people from Golden Gate Park a year ago. Now it plans to move
them from four tourist zones.
- Across the bay, Berkeley has begun sweeping
homeless from storefronts on Telegraph Avenue, a hangout for street people
since the '60s.
- A change from the '80s
- ''Homelessness is just as much a tragedy
and a national disgrace now as it was in the mid-'80s, but people are tired
of it,'' says Laura Waxman, a former U.S. Conference of Mayors analyst.
''Then it was new. Now a whole generation has grown up with it.''
- The shift is a change from the 1980s,
when homelessness was a chic cause and Hollywood celebrities slept on sidewalk
heat grates to draw attention to it. Then, homelessness was considered
a temporary social ill, one that would recede with the next run-up of the
stock market, more federal funding and local good deeds.
- Instead, in the past decade, homelessness
has become worse. The numbers climb every year, even as the nation embraces
its longest period of robust economic growth of the century. On any given
night, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, there are
760,000 homeless people on the streets - more than enough to create a city
the size of Seattle, and 50% more than were counted in 1988.
- In 29 major cities, the homeless outnumber
shelter beds, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Surveyed annually,
mayors universally said last year that the strong economy had ''little
or no effect'' on curing homelessness.
- In Seattle, the predicament is perfectly
framed. About 5,500 homeless people live here. They are the nation's 13th-largest
homeless population, and every night the city's shelters come up about
2,000 beds short. Shelter space is especially scarce for women; they are
turned away five times more often than men. The waiting list for public
housing has 17,000 names.
- The city has money, heart and a red-hot
economy, but no concrete answers. The mayor, for example, has promised
to get all homeless women and children off the streets by Christmas. But
it's a temporary fix. His plan funds more shelter beds and hotel vouchers
for stays of up to three weeks.
- ''What happens then on New Year's Day?''
asks Joan Clough, who runs a women's shelter. The consensus among activists
is that although well-intentioned, the mayor's effort won't make a dent.
''We have done a lot to address the needs of people on the streets in every
way from private charity to government spending,'' says Mark Sidran, city
attorney and architect of the so-called new civility ordinances. ''Yet
most people think homelessness is worse. You cannot call it a success.
You have to begin to ask, what's wrong with this picture?''
- Gap between rich, poor widens
- Seattle's experience in the last decade
reflects the nation's in other ways as well, starting with the boom. The
'90s made this city of jets and software start-ups rich. Unemployment is
at a 10-year low.
- Yet all that economic prosperity has
widened the gap between rich and poor and pushed more people into homelessness
by driving up rents. House prices are among the highest in the country.
The apartment vacancy rate hovers under 2%.
- Someone at the Seattle King County Homelessness
Advisory Group did the math and calculated that a tenant must earn $13
an hour to keep housing costs at a third of the income - the standard requirement
of banks making mortgage loans.
- Seattle's housing crisis mirrors the
nation's. The number of low-income housing units nationwide dwindled in
the 1970s and 1980s while the number of low-income renters rose. By 1993,
according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the shortage was
4.7 million units.
- ''Progress'' and urban renewal eliminated
the single-room occupancy hotels where many addicts and the mentally ill
on the streets lived. In Seattle, the transformation is dramatic. The $30-a-month
flophouses in the old Skid Road district - the term ''skid row'' originated
here - are long gone, replaced by yuppie boutiques, cafes and workout clubs.
- To Rick Reynolds, a minister who runs
Operation Nightwatch, a refuge of last resort, the remake of the Seaman's
Union Hall, home to 22 retired seamen, into a bed and breakfast for tourists
stands as the final symbol of gentrification.
- Flo Beaumon, who runs a defunct motel
that provides temporary housing for working homeless people, says the twin
realities of the '90s came into sharpest focus last summer, when she provided
a room to a homeless woman who worked in the cafeteria at Microsoft.
- Absurd as that sounds, it was only one
absurdity. Beaumon faces new ones every day. Homelessness is like that,
full of disconnects tragic and comic at once. When the cafeteria worker
moved on, she was replaced by Jack Plowman,53, a homeless telemarketer
who sold home-refinancing packages over the phone.
- ''The thing about homelessness is it's
so time-consuming,'' explains Robin H., 40, who'd rather his two teen-age
sons not read his full name in the newspaper. ''Your stuff is not in the
same place. You have to take a shower here. Then you have to travel halfway
across town to get breakfast. Then if you need any clothes, you have to
go somewhere else.''
- In the search for solutions, voters taxed
themselves thrice to build low-income housing. Programs, public and private,
include a school for homeless children, an art studio for homeless artisans,
a restaurant, Fare Start, where homeless people are trained in culinary
arts by top chefs. The city has so many church-run soup kitchens that the
homeless themselves recommend against handouts to panhandlers.
- ''A guy came up to me asking for money,''
Robin H. says. ''I said, 'I'm homeless myself, and I don't have a problem
eating. What's your problem?' ''
- But all that effort has not stopped the
rising tide. And that begs the question: If homelessness can't be solved
- Sidran says it's time to rethink. He'd
like to redefine the term ''homeless'' and exclude battered wives and runaway
children, for which there are other solutions, and deal with the reality
that most chronically homeless people are addicts or mentally ill or both.
- ''If you don't look at the underlying
reasons why people lack housing, it's hard to come up with strategies for
solving the problem,'' he says. ''I'm not saying there's not an economic
dimension to homelessness, but overwhelmingly, it's a crisis of public
- Sidran is blunt, and in this supremely
politically correct city, perpetually in political hot water. In his highly
visible campaign to pass the new anti-homeless laws he was denounced as
cruel. His ordinances were challenged in court, and although he won the
court fight, he hasn't made much headway with his political foes.
- This is why. He says things like: ''It's
hard to be liberal when the guy standing next to you is peeing on your
foot.'' Or: ''There's something incongruous about seeing a man with a sign
that says, 'Please Help Me' and in the window of the store behind him is
a sign that says, 'Help Wanted.' ''
- His point, no matter how many people
privately agree, falters on one inescapable fact: waiting lists for treatment
programs are even longer than waiting lists for housing.
- Maria Foscarinis, executive director
of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, based in Washington,
D.C., says the efforts to outlaw the objectionable behavior of the homeless
are born of frustration.
- ''For some cities, it's easier to move
people out of public sight,'' she says. ''But all it does is move people
around. It makes it less likely to help. Arrest records don't help people
looking for work.''
- Seattle is now weighing an approach taken
by neighboring Portland, Ore. There, ''tough love'' rules. Homeless people
are denied shelter unless they are clean and sober. Treatment is offered.
- Consequently, most of the drug users
and drunks have disappeared from the streets of Portland. But they haven't
all gone into treatment, and the problem is far from solved. Just ask the
people running the shelters a hop across the Columbia River from Portland,
in Vancouver, Wash.