Proposal for more sanctioned homeless encampments in Seattle raises public safety concerns

SEATTLE - Seattle could see more tiny home villages pop up across the city. On Wednesday, City Council members will discuss a proposal to add dozens more sanctioned homeless encampments.

The proposal would allow 40 sanctioned encampments, each having up to 100 residents. The city's legislation would exempt churches and religious groups from acquiring a land use permit, making it easier to set up the tiny home villages and run them.

There are currently nine sanctioned homeless encampments in Seattle. Before the Licton Springs Village was shut down, the people who lived around it said it caused nothing but problems.

“Waking up to men outside my bedroom window was one of the things that I was not okay with. Or finding needles in my neighbor’s yards,” said Amber Matthai, who lived in the same neighborhood as the former Licton Springs Village. “I actually know two people that sold their homes and moved. They were actually on Nesbit, straight across from the encampment. And they had so many problems with people intruding into their homes while they were eating dinner that they moved.”

Matthai said she fears problems at Licton Springs could happen to other neighborhoods. She said she believes more tiny homes are not the answer to the city’s homeless crisis.

“We need to expand treatment. We need to increase mental health and we need to get people back into environments where they can reincorporate back into society. You cannot reincorporate back into society living in tents,” said Matthai.

Matthai said crime spiked in her neighborhood during the two years the encampment was there. Though Seattle Police said their numbers can’t prove the encampment was to blame, there was a large increase in crime in a two city-block radius from it. SPD numbers showed there were 68 crimes reported in 2016 before the Licton Springs encampment existed. In 2017 when the village moved, in there were 138 crimes, a 103 percent increase.

“Licton Springs was an exception and moving forward, I think a lot of changes have been put in place so that the Licton Springs experience will be very, very different,” said Sharon Lee, executive director for the Low Income Housing Institute. “I would say one of the mistakes around Licton Springs Village was the location and that was a tough neighborhood to begin with.”

Lee said, moving forward, villages will have staff onsite 24/7, as well as skilled case managers. She also mentioned LIHI volunteers will help churches oversee the villages to ensure safety. Part of the city proposal for more tiny houses requires villages to have a community advisory committee discussing ways to limit issues.

Taking what they’ve learned from Licton Springs, Lee said adding more encampments is a necessary step.

“We have a homelessness crisis. We have a humanitarian crisis about people living on the street. So, we want to see more investment into affordable housing by the public and private sector,” said Lee.

She also explained LIHI wants to turn the negatives of Licton Springs into a positive by developing the space.

“We want to build more affordable housing so people are not living in tiny houses. So, just about every building we build we move people. We prioritize people from the tiny house villages into affordable apartments,” said Lee.

The LIHI executive director said, despite what people may think about the encampments, their organization is seeing results. She said last year in Seattle, about 700 women, men and children lived in a tiny home. 50 percent of them moved into long-term housing.

She explained this was through the help of case managers onsite connecting people to resources to become more self-sufficient.

“Working with a family, helping get the kids in school, helping the parents with employment or counseling services. And then we’re seeing that they help them fill out housing applications so people can move from a tiny house,” said Lee.

Seattle residents like Matthai said they believe the root of the homeless crisis is mental illness and think more time and resources should be spent on addressing it.

“We have a responsibility to make sure that people that we’re trying to help have access to the help and we’re not continuing to put them into harm’s way,” said Matthai.

Council member Kshama Sawant is a sponsor of the bill. The council is scheduled to discuss the proposal Wednesday at 2 p.m. in City Council Chambers.