Tomorrow afternoon Mayor Michael McGinn will veto legislation that would empower local law enforcement to fine panhandlers downtown. The legislation has been aggressively supported by the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) and the Seattle Times.
I have argued elsewhere that Seattle doesn’t really have an “establishment” in the sense that some have suggested. Instead, the city has two dichotomous strains of thinking when it comes to our civic culture, Forward Thrust and Lesser Seattle. I have suggested the election of Michael McGinn was a synthesis of those two divergent strains of thought about how to make our city more sustainable. But the DSA (an organization trying to pass as the establishment of our city) may have finally overreached with their efforts to pass panhandler legislation. And the failure of that effort might mean a new alignment between advocates for the city’s poor and sustainability advocates.
Over the course of the last year the DSA has pushed successfully for votes by the Seattle City Council on the spendy waterfront tunnel, the repeal of the “head-tax,” and most recently, legislation that would punish panhandlers on downtown streets with a $50 fine. In every case their argument has been jobs and economic development for downtown which they suggest would lead to increased tax revenues for the city.
The Council’s support of the tunnel and repeal of the “head-tax” are unarguably antithetical to the future sustainability fiscal health of the city, never mind achieving carbon neutrality. But what about the panhandler legislation? Might this issue be an opportunity for homeless advocates and supporters of carbon neutrality to find common ground about the city’s future? Often the two groups are at odds over development and land use issues.
The answer is yes, and finding agreement is not as difficult as it might seem. It is a well established fact that sprawl contributes to increased carbon emissions, more consumption of gasoline, decreased energy efficiency, and even adverse impacts to lakes, rivers, and streams. Compact, densely populated communities are good for the environment and our economic future because they are healthier and more efficient. But cities, ironically, can be dirty, messy places. And there is no better place to see the problems faced by our society’s most vulnerable people than walking city streets, even here in Seattle.
That’s what makes the DSA’s position on panhandlers so nonsensical. Does the DSA really think that fining panhandlers will increase business and create a vibrant urban center? What kind of economic stimulus plan begins with building huge unnecessary highway projects that contribute to climate change, continues with a tax repeal that creates a budget deficit for the City’s transportation department, and culminates with trying to push homeless, poor, and mentally ill people out of the down town core? These things will have a negligible effect on the bottom lines of downtown businesses. And this view of economic recovery is neither sustainable nor compassionate.
That’s why last weekend an unlikely assortment of supporters of Mayor McGinn and City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, homeless advocates, supporters of carbon neutrality for Seattle, and progressive voters raised their voices together to urge defeat of the panhandler legislation. Four councilmembers, including O’Brien, Nick Licata, Tom Rasmussen and Bruce Harrell voted no on the legislation. The vote to override the Mayor’s certain veto will hopefully be an opportunity for other Councilmembers to soundly reject this bad idea.
The outcry and subsequent ‘no’ votes last week aren’t about being anti-business either. More development is going to have to happen to accommodate growth and support the compact communities that we know are more sustainable than sprawl. That means making living downtown more appealing and attractive to families and other people moving into the city. But that makes addressing the deep problems we have in our city—of which panhandling is only a symptom—an even higher priority.
Shouldn’t the DSA and City Council be looking for sustainable, long term solutions to the underlying problems of homelessness, chronic mental illness, and addiction that plague many poor people downtown and throughout our city? Solutions do exist. The Downtown Emergency Service Center’s 1811 Project is an example of how providing housing first and then treatment to chronic public inebriates can have real benefits by saving local government money in uncompensated health care and making the streets safer for everyone. But this project was originally opposed by some businesses because of their fears it would scare tourists away from downtown. That hasn’t happened. In fact, the project is improving the lives of the residents of 1811 and saving the public money.
The problem of panhandling—to the extent there is one—is not one of chronic misbehavior but chronic lack of resources and gross misrepresentation of the underlying problems by business groups downtown. Fining panhandlers won’t make Seattle “a great place to live, work, shop and play.” Panhandling legislation would simply push the problem around at great expense without building long term solutions that will make our most dense and intense neighborhoods appealing, safe, and welcoming to everyone. If we are going to have an “establishment” in this town, I would hope—like either Jim Ellis or Emmett Watson—it might be visionary not reactionary.