by Kirby Lindsay Laney, posted 22 March 2017
Last Wednesday, on March 15th, the Fremont Chamber of Commerce hosted a panel discussion with representatives from Seattle Public Utilities (SPU,) Office of Emergency Management (OEM,) Seattle Police Department (SPD,) and our District Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien.
The Chamber promoted the meeting with the word ‘Homelessness’ in the title, and while some talk did concern the homeless, mostly from our Councilman, it became very apparent, very early on, that most attendees (business owners, employees, and residents) wanted to talk about crime.
What Attendees Came To Say
The Chamber hosted a similar meeting in 2015, and comments from attendees now started where they left off then – identifying two very distinct groups of people. First are the true homeless, who struggle to find shelter and solutions to the troubles that knocked them down. They have everyone’s sympathy and support in finding help and healing. Second are the vagabonds, the essentially undesirable, the criminals who create problems for us all, including the homeless. They have no interest in gaining shelter, or solutions. They want to either cause, or capitalize, on trouble. They take handouts, then return again and again to demand more, while they steal, sell drugs, molest, and harm our community. We must differentiate, an attendee commented, between the two groups – those who want help and those who cause problems.
An attendee described Fremont Canal Park, which is fairly quiet now but has been very busy in Spring and Summer seasons with people sprawled on the grass and camped along the Burke-Gilman Trail, creating hazards for families and cyclists trying to use the park. Some may be legitimately ‘homeless’, and see this as a place to camp, but many just hang out, harass passers-by, and deal/do drugs, while they trash the area, cook meth, and vandalize adjacent properties. They’ve done so much damage that Seattle Parks & Recreation removed the lookout point that has been a park feature since the early 1980s, and SPU chose this area for placement of its pilot Sharps Collection Bin.
Councilmember O’Brian counseled patience and understanding as he explained that some former addicts, who may have previously broken into homes to fund their habits, have gotten clean and sober over time, and give back to our community. An attendee then asked for help removing the dealers, to keep them from preying on people already at the lowest point in their lives, and hooking them on heroin.
Another attendee mentioned a ‘continual flow’ here of transients from other parts of the country, and the sense that our Governor, Mayor and City Council encourage people to relocate to Seattle for free housing, food, and services, funded by our taxes. Councilmember O’Brien firmly denounced the rumor of a ‘Free-attle’ policy. He doesn’t see people moving here due to laissez-faire policies, and he is sure no one would choose to live on the streets, in the rain and cold. He sees people who come here to find work, drawn by our booming economy, and don’t succeed.
A self-described ‘citizen’ asked how we can vote to remove the eye-sores of trash piles, urban campsites, and sleeping junkies from our sidewalks. Another attendee asked whether we will ever be able to keep people from camping out, and Councilmember O’Brien responded that we need to identify places where they cannot camp, but we also need to tell people where they can go. “Politically it is difficult,” he explained, “just saying no to folks.”
Two female attendees commented on how crime and rising taxes (including those to pay for homeless solutions,) are driving out the middle class. Many people can barely afford their homes here, and others don’t want to raise children among inebriated and/or mentally unbalanced individuals that frighten them weekly. The middle class and seniors feel squeezed, while yet another initiative has been started to raise taxes higher to fund more homeless programs.
A business owner told of filling his own trucks with trash lying around the neighborhood, even as he pays rates to SPU. He resides in Bellevue, where private security tends to the transients and the city provides public trash cans on every corner. He acknowledged a willingness to pay for these services here, but another attendee insisted that we already do.
‘It’s an epidemic,’ exclaimed one attendee, about the drugs, the filth and the thievery. He feels the SPD can’t do anything, and officers he’s talked to have admitted to being powerless. Lt. Kevin Grossman, of the SPD, acknowledged that they can’t arrest someone just because neighbors say he did something wrong.
“I want to be helpful,” a business owner said, but he – and most people at this meeting – felt at a loss as to what to do.
A Response Or Two
Lt. Grossman insisted that he wants to hear about crime. If we see a crime committed, please call 911. However, he acknowledged that sometimes officers cannot respond to every call due to the volume of calls they receive. He also acknowledged that SPD is not appropriately staffed when you look at dispatch numbers, and the calls being responded to versus the number of calls still holding. “Forty calls holding is a good day,” he said, while admitting that the 40 people holding may not feel reassured. “This is not where we are supposed to be,” he observed.
The Lieutenant, who has served in the SPD for 20 years, acknowledged that crime in the homeless camps and among the RVs and caravans, “is a problem. It’s overwhelming our capacity.” His response was given to a complaint about a shooting in a caravan near an attendee’s home. Lt. Grossman said that we need more long-term housing solutions, although even with adequate housing we would need to continue to help many people stay stable in that housing.
Washington State ranks 47th in mental health treatment, the Lieutenant reported. It isn’t just drug use that makes it difficult to assist some homeless, but also a lack of resources for those who struggle with mental illness. The lack of adequate treatment leaves these vulnerable people on our streets, becoming victims and/or victimizing others.
“We don’t have great options,” Councilmember O’Brien observed. “We can’t afford to get treatment for everyone,” he acknowledged. Recently the Councilman went out with Union Gospel Mission, mostly in the SODO region, to meet the homeless. He said that while Seattle is experiencing an economic boom, with construction cranes crowding our skyline, “it feels like we are in the midst of the deepest, darkest depression at the same time,” as homeless live on our streets, in our parks, and under our bridges.
The Lieutenant also reported that for its vast geography, the North Precinct (with Fremont at its southernmost border,) has very low numbers of ‘people’ crimes – crimes committed against a person – while having very high numbers of ‘property’ crimes – crime against property including vehicles, personal property, etc.
He mentioned a new emphasis at SPD on those “handful of people who commit a lot of crimes.” For instance, one prolific criminal can be found to have committed 73 separate car prowls. After the meeting, Lt. Grossman said that SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole has talked with prosecutors and judges about consequences for those who repeatedly offend, and demonstrate no intention to change their ways.
As to the trash befouling our community, Alex Tonel of SPU, works as one of three people in the Illegal Dumping Program (and the new Sharps Collection program.) They inspect and coordinate clean-up of illegal dump sites, and they addressed 14,000 complaints in 2016. They partner with the Department of Corrections to get those who must fulfill court-ordered community service requirements to pick up trash. Tonel said the program only works if we call and report, at 206/684-7587 (same number for graffiti.) Tonel also recommended using the Find It, Fix It App, particularly if you can send a photo of the clean-up or repair needed.
Councilmember O’Brien said that he shares the frustration with the trash, and that they’ve discussed this at the City Council, but “each exchange takes time,” as they reach out to find answers and solutions.
“What is working?” asked one attendee, an artist and property owner who recommended ‘out-of-the-box thinking.’
Matt Auflick, of the Office of Emergency Management (OEM,) explained that they coordinate community efforts to avoid, manage and recover from disasters – they manage after natural disasters like earthquakes and floods, and large accidents like the recent overturned tanker that stopped traffic during a snow flurry.
The OEM is currently in the fourth week of a sixteen-week activation, where 100 experts from all areas of the city gather and talk about what is working, what is not, and what other solutions to consider.
According to Councilmember O’Brien, city leadership do look at solutions being used across the nation, “but other cities say what we are doing is working.” He praised the programs of city-sanctioned tent cities/little houses, L.E.A.D., and Navigation Center.
On the topic of crime, SPD is hiring, Councilmember O’Brien said. Lt. Grossman concurred by explaining that in 2016 SPD had 60 people retire and hired 90. Unfortunately, each hire must receive training at the State Academy, and the SPD is only given a limited number of slots there. “We attract great candidates,” Lt. Grossman said, but, “we need more.”
Councilmember O’Brien also said that the city has funded a community service program with the SPD, to deploy non-sworn officers (in uniform) in our communities, where they can provide in-depth attention to chronic and complicated problems, such as neighbor disputes and runaway children. Two long-time Fremonsters recalled this program working very well when last funded, in the 1980s. Our community officer, Maury Bell, assisted very effectively on problems of drug dealers, prostitution and shoplifting.
Another success noted by an attendee at this meeting has been Patrick Place Apartments. The long-term housing for people previously chronically homeless has successfully turned several lives around.
‘What about the person just about to fall?,’ one attendee asked. King County offers a phone-in 211 service for people who need help to avoid homelessness, or once they’ve landed on the street.
What The Future Holds
Three business owners at this meeting talked about either not moving their offices to Seattle, or relocating their offices from here, due to problems with crime and filth. One Fremont business owner moved his office to a private office park on the south side of the Ship Canal, where his staff no longer step over someone sleeping in the doorway, or fear being threatened or harassed. Instead, office park management and private security tend to potential car prowlers or other opportunists, so the office staff can focus on business rather policing their surroundings.
The frustration expressed by meeting attendees, and the expert panel, remained even after this discussion ended. Everyone remained resolute in their concern for those on the street that need shelter, the discussion about what to do about harassment, vandalism, theft, molestation, and drug deals failed to alieviate concerns.
The Fremont Chamber remains dedicated to strengthening our community and improving life in the Fremont area. If you want to learn more about their work, visit the Chamber website at Fremont.com or attend another upcoming meeting – listed on their on-line calendar.
- Fremont Chamber Identifies ‘A Crime Problem’
- by Kirby Lindsay Laney, September 21, 2015
- Finding Solutions, Inside & Out, At Patrick Place
- by Kirby Lindsay Laney, August 10, 2016
- Share, And Make Fremont Safer
- by Kirby Lindsay, July 28, 2014
©2017 Kirby Laney. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.