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Monday, March 4, 2024
March 4, 2024

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Westneat: Homeless plans in rags

West Coast cities starting to confront limits of liberal dream


The news this past week on the homelessness front is that some cities across the West are banding together to try to more aggressively tackle the vexing issue of urban encampments. “In Rare Alliance, Democrats and Republicans Seek Legal Power to Clear Homeless Camps,” was how The New York Times put it.

It’s an effort to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit some Western court rulings, regarding ordinances in Boise, Idaho, and Grants Pass, Ore., that established a constitutional right to camp in public spaces, provided those cities can’t come up with alternative accommodations such as shelters.

It isn’t known if the high court will take up the case. The news for now is in the effort: that some of the West’s most progressive cities — Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland among them — are joining with conservatives in states such as Arizona and Idaho to try to exert more legal coercion on unauthorized encampments in parks and under bridges, rather than letting them proliferate as has been happening for years now.

“Many communities affected by homelessness (are) at a breaking point,” reads the Seattle brief, which was joined by attorneys for Tacoma, Spokane, San Diego and others. “Despite massive infusions of public resources, businesses and residents are suffering the increasingly negative effects of long-term urban camping.”

But there’s an even bigger political shift on display in the case. The cities appear to be acknowledging that the well-meaning effort to house all the homeless, for years now a widely espoused goal, isn’t actually possible. San Francisco’s pleas to the high court are most blunt on this point.

“In recent years, San Francisco has spent billions of dollars providing shelter and housing to persons experiencing homelessness, including over $672 million during the past fiscal year. But the city cannot feasibly provide shelter for everyone,” the legal filing declares.

Or take Portland, which in 2020 funded a major new program with the stated goal to “help end homelessness across the region.” Here’s what Portland is now arguing: “Even if cities could build enough shelters to house the entire homeless population — a budgetary impossibility for most cities — it is not clear even that would be enough.” It went on to cite one of the reasons they’re struggling: In the past year Portland built more shelter and made 3,399 offers to go into it, but people turned them down 2,560 of those times.

This is a far cry from the days of 10-year plans to end homelessness or “no person left outside” campaigns. Seattle still lists that its first goal “is to ensure all Seattle residents have access to shelter.” The King County Regional Homelessness Authority states it this way: “We believe that it is possible to end homelessness.”

Maybe they do believe. But it’s notable that the cities now are arguing in court that they simply can’t. The problem’s too big, too complex, too daunting. Portland, again in its legal brief, said that combined with the right-to-camp rulings, “local governments face an impossible choice.”

It’s revealing how much the ground is shifting here. Ending homelessness appears to be out. It’s now about managing homelessness — a huge difference, and not just a semantic one.

I’ve been arguing in this space for more than a decade that Seattle’s approach is both too utopian (apartments for everyone) and too lowly (while we look for money and time to build the apartments, you can go live or die in wretched, dangerous conditions under this bridge).

We should have stood up temporary, cheaper, emergency-style shelter — and then had a backbone about getting people into them. You can’t force anyone, and there’s no need to criminalize the issue. But you can say: “You can’t sleep here, in this park or on this sidewalk. You can sleep over there. Those are the Seattle rules.”

We could still do this today. It would be a step to get many people up off the streets. It wouldn’t be utopian. It wouldn’t be permanent, or, unfortunately, universally effective. What it would be is doable.

Instead, here we are: Making “urgent pleas” to the Supreme Court. Joining the many West Coast cities and other groups that collectively filed more than two dozen briefs expressing a sense of desperation about “desolate scenes” and “pits of squalor.” Acknowledging that the well-intended liberal dream of housing for all is maybe just that — a dream.

Mugged by reality, as the conservatives like to say.