No Yellow-Brick Road for Homeless in Emerald City
Fight over a public-bath facility shows struggle to balance homeless rights and business interests
SEATTLE — Eddie Kramer is committing a crime by doing nothing at all.
He stands on a street corner near Seattle's historic Pioneer Square, looking through the leafy branches that line the park perimeter to the rough cobblestone and flat wooden benches farther in.
"If I sit here I can get arrested for blocking the walk," says Mr. Kramer, a homeless newcomer to the city. "If I go over to the park and stand around there too long, I can get permanently barred."
At times, it seems as if he has nowhere to turn.
Kramer's plight is representative of cities' growing struggle to balance the rights of the homeless with the safety and business concerns of many residents. A new spate of tough laws cracking down on homelessness has swept through many US cities, leaving some to wonder if Americans have turned a cold shoulder to one of the decade's most enduring issues.
By the end of last year, three-quarters of the largest 50 US cities had imposed anti-begging laws, an increase of 62 percent from just two years ago, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington. The center pegs San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas, New York and San Diego as the worst offenders, for actions ranging from harassment to a ban on sleeping in public.
"Cities are copying cities," says Barbara Duffield of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington. "One place has become as unwelcome as the next. It's not a phenomenon that is exclusive to Seattle."
But here in Seattle, a city that prides itself on friendliness and livability, the issue has caused citizens to rethink the role the city plays in caring for its estimated 5,000 homeless.
Seattle city attorney Mark Sidran, who has drafted some of the homeless laws, says they are in part the result of the public's negative reaction to panhandlers and others who disrupt downtown life and commerce. "The city has the right to protect the economic vitality of its business district," he says, adding that the laws are aimed at taking back streets and parks from those who misuse them.
But the identity crisis has surfaced in more than just the city's tough laws.
In December, the National Law Center cited Seattle as one of the few cities attempting to find alternative solutions to homelessness. The city had offered to pay for an important new downtown hygiene center to be used by the homeless for free.
Eight months later, the new wash-up center is completed, but the sparkling array of toilet and shower fixtures and laundry facilities goes unused. In an abrupt change of heart, Mayor Norm Rice, along with other city officials, decided not to provide funds for the Urban Reststop's daily operation. The move came after nearby retailers complained and a developer threatened to drop his plan for a new upscale eatery if the center was opened nearby.
The city continues to work on a new proposal - a series of smaller hygiene stations at scattered sites - but it fails to meet the demand that the Urban Reststop would have.
Despite the roadblocks that Seattle has encountered in its efforts to alleviate homelessness, some cities have found innovative ways to resolve the conflict.
West Hollywood, Calif. has contracted with private service providers to offer aid.
Tucson, Ariz., has formed a committee of citizens, police, and homeless advocates who handle complaints before they reach the law enforcement stage.
Dade County, Fla., has gone so far as to levy a 1 percent food and beverage tax at restaurants that have an alcohol license and gross over $400,000 a year. The tax raises about $7 million annually, of which about 6.2 million goes to the Dade County Homeless Trust, an organization that pairs the local tax dollars with federal money and contracts private companies to build and maintain properties for the homeless.
The program has become a national model, receiving $24.6 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1996, and $15 million more from HUD during the past three years as a reward for the effectiveness of the program.
"The key is convincing the business community that they are a part of the community at large, and that they needed to take responsibility for it," says Hilda Fernandez, assistant director of the trust. "Now, there are fewer people on the streets and a significant number have moved on to transitional or permanent housing. You can see that there's been a positive result."