When I leave my apartment in the Chinatown neighborhood of Seattle I see lush green trees, the VA medical building sitting atop a hill, Mt. Rainer off in the distance, and a man with all of his possessions in a rundown van.
What I have learned since moving to Seattle is that what I witnessed is not new and it is throughout the city. Film director Christopher Rufo aggregated data on homeless encampments and their hazards, such as trash, feces, and used needles, on to one map. The data points show that residents in every single neighborhood have seen sights like the ones that I have seen: large homeless encampments near freeways, people living in broken down RVs in front of people’s houses, and people sleeping in business entryways.
Seattle now has a humanitarian crisis, with more than 11,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in January 2019. This crisis is front and center in the city council elections. Major flashpoints in the elections include the approval and subsequent quick repeal of the Seattle Head Tax and KOMO news report, "Seattle is Dying," an inflammatory piece focusing on a failing criminal justice system.
Homelessness and what the city can do to solve it is on the minds of voters in this year’s city council election, in which seven of the nine seats are on the ballot. District 3, where I happen to reside, has been labeled the most competitive and is the most expensive. Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, the socialist alternative incumbent, is the most vulnerable to lose her seat to the now five candidates hoping to unseat her. This district will show if Seattle wants to keep moving forward with progressive policies and with divisive leaders, or to change course and focus on more pragmatic progressive solutions.
One of the challengers, Ami Nguyen, is a King County Public Defender and the daughter of Vietnamese refugees. Her ideas and beliefs are formed by her experience as a child where her family “...relied on government benefits like subsidized housing, food stamps, public schools, and school lunches,” Ngyuen told me. And because of this she believes that “...it is important for a city councilmember to understand the importance of those programs.”
That is the message that Nguyen is telling the voters. She understands the plight of low income people in the district because as a child she lived in poverty, and as an adult she helps those living in poverty as a public defender. This message is resonating with voters, as shown by the fact that she has received over $57,000 from the city’s democracy vouchers program, the most for any candidate in her district.
When asked about her policies and positions on how to handle the homelessness crisis she said that there needs to be a mix of affordable housing and supportive housing.
“We just can’t only build low income and affordable housing, or only build supportive housing, because we are limited in money,” Nguyen said. “With the private companies they’re building affordable housing, and they're (being built) faster. Supportive housing will cost more. But a lot of nonprofits in the city are capable of it.”
Supportive housing not only focuses on housing people, but provides services such as addiction and mental health treatment, to deal with the underlying causes of homelessness. Nguyen said, “I think that it's a great way to make sure that people are not only housed, but they stay housed.”
When it comes to the environmental impact of homelessness, Nguyen focused on the feces outside. “... if you are having feces (on the ground) then it not only affects the soil for the community long term, but also short term because they (homeless people) are sleeping right next to it. There are potential diseases that can make them sick.
“Give people access to bathrooms. We don’t have enough,” she said. “If you don't provide enough then people are going to use the restroom in public and it's going to have that environmental impact and also that health and safety impact.”
Nguyen is correct. Diseases that are transmitted through human waste include hepatitis, meningitis, and typhus and all of these diseases are found in homeless encampments in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle respectively.
When asked about the litter, including the needles that are scattered throughout the city, Nguyen shared a story when canvassing throughout the district.
“We actually found a bag of — a sports bag — had at least 50 needles in. ...it was out in the open and this bag is open, there was a playground across the street. It was just scary.”
This anecdote shows the chilling reality of the problem in the city. There is a lack of respect, not only for the health and safety of the community members, but for the wellbeing of the city itself and its environment.
Another candidate that is hoping to unseat Councilwoman Sawant is Egan Orion. Orion is the director of Pridefest in Seattle, the head of the Broadway Business Improvement Area (BBIA) in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and a small business owner. His ideals and experience in the private sector have lead him to gain the endorsements from both the Chamber of Commerce, including a sizable contribution from Amazon, and The Seattle Times.
Through his work at the BBIA, Orion has been able to bring homeless outreach workers to the district in order to “connect with them (homeless individuals), getting to know them, and to help them navigate the system.” Along with the outreach workers, he also runs a 7-days-a-week clean up of Broadway, “...including needles and graffiti that have become an everyday part of our urban village,” he said.
The focus for Orion is showing district residents that Seattle needs “a fresh start” — one that focuses on bringing different communities together to include small and large businesses, nonprofits, community organizers, and everyday citizens. Orion wants to do “...whatever it takes to move our city forward and solve or mitigate the many problems we face,” which is something he thinks is lacking from Councilwoman Sawant.
“Seattle has a core responsibility to shelter and house our unsheltered population,” said Olga Laskin, Orion's campaign manager. Orion’s campaign website shows that this is also a core focus on his campaign, with sections on solving the homeless crisis to ways to combat the housing affordability crisis in the city.
To address the homelessness crisis in the city Orion proposes a bond with King County, for over $500 million in order to get supportive housing to the chronically homeless in the city. These supportive housing units will have wraparound services, “including mental health and addiction recovery services, and provide the stability and support these residents need for a better future,” Orion said.
Like Nguyen, Orion wants there to be a focus on a mix of affordable and supportive housing. The center of Orion’s affordable housing plan is development based around “light density,” which means more duplexes and triplexes, which would be accomplished through the private sector.
In response to the impacts of homelessness, the Orion campaign focused less on the environmental impacts, but rather the impacts on public health.
“Yes, there's garbage and needles, but those impacts are not necessarily more than the mess that sheltered people leave," Laskin said. "They're just more obvious and more likely to have a public health impact, particularly for those who are unsheltered.”
The Orion campaign is correct that people who are sheltered have a greater environmental impact than unsheltered individuals, however, in 2018 the city of Seattle collected more than 1,180 tons of garbage from unmanaged encampments.
The ideas of candidates like Orion and Nguyen on homelessness and housing affordability are in contrast to incumbent Sawant. The socialist alternative member of the city council believes that Seattle should tax the large corporations in order to supply the city with supportive housing and 100% public housing. This is the only way that Sawant is proposing to solve the homelessness crisis in the city, and what her entire campaign is focused around.
There is nothing more to be said about the incumbent's housing policy or other policies. All problems in Seattle can be fixed, in Sawant’s opinion, through taxing businesses with a steep progressive tax in order to fund social programs for the masses. In the almost five years she has been in office, little has been done to achieve any of the bold policies Sawant has presented on homelessness, affordability, and environmental issues.
Along with Nguyen and Orion, Sawant challengers include: Pot shop owner Logan Bowers, IT business owner Pat Murakami, and Zachary DeWolf who won his election last year to be on the Seattle School Board.
On the Aug. 6 primary, voters were clear that they want change in their elected representative, with 64% of voters choosing to vote for a candidate that presented pragmatic and tangible solutions to the crises that Seattle is facing.
As of Aug. 9, Councilwoman Sawant received 36% of the vote, while during her 2015 primary showing she received 52% of the vote. Her challenger in the November general election is Egan Orion, who received 22% of the vote. Ami Nguyen came in 5th place with just over 9% of the vote.
The coming months will show if Orion will be able to bring together a large and inclusive coalition together in order to bring a “fresh start” to city council.