[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a Letter to the Editor, submitted by a verified resident. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of South King Media, nor its staff:]
I want to preface this letter by stating that I speak only for myself – I am not speaking as a representative of any organization or entity, but as a concerned member of our community.
I would like to respond to the letters published recently regarding the people residing in Burien Town Square Park, and the tent fire that occurred there. I know these issues have created a lot of discussion lately, and I want to make sure while we are having these conversations we maintain perspective, understand the facts, and recognize how complex these situations can be.
The tent fire at Town Square was a deeply troubling incident, leaving people injured and shaken. This event has encouraged many to take a deeper look at what it means to be unhoused in our city, and what we as a community should be doing to protect the safety and well-being of our residents, sheltered or not. While much of the commentary surrounding this subject is well-intended, there are some statements that may create confusion and deserve to be looked at through a broader lens.
In one of the letters to the editor published this week, the author makes a statement that the people in Town Square involved in the tent fire were:
“…not seeking warmth. They were seeking a high.”
It is difficult to hear harsh speculation like this when people are still trying to recover from the trauma of this event. How someone could claim to know the intentions of the individuals in that tent, or to know exactly what is happening inside tents from their viewpoint across the street and several stories up, is beyond me. Another letter suggests our city councilmembers should be required to spend the night on the street to see what is really happening. I have spent many nights out on our streets, and I will relay to you some of what I have seen.
For the last several years, every time the Burien Severe Weather Shelter opens, I’ve gone out in the evenings to do outreach. Sometimes I am out all night, until the early hours of the morning, finding more and more people who didn’t know the shelter was open or don’t know how to get there. I find people in varying states of distress – some injured, without a coat, no shoes, soaking wet from rain and snow, in danger of losing life and limb. The sense of desperation for these individuals is very real. Last year, at least 13 people in King County died from exposure to the cold while experiencing homelessness.
Knowing this makes it clear why people take desperate measures. This winter has been particularly brutal – just this season alone, I have personally helped put out 3 fires in our community while doing outreach. Each time, I found people huddling around the flames, just trying to stay warm. And each time, as soon as they found out there was somewhere safe to go, they were quick to choose the shelter over the cold.
Another claim made in one of these letters states that people camping in Town Square know about the shelter and refuse to go. I often find people at Town Square who do not know the shelter is open; I also know some of the individuals camping there do stay at the shelter when they find out it is open – though it can be an incredibly difficult decision for many, to leave everything they own behind, knowing it may not be there when they get back.
We need to be careful about making assumptions, or blanket statements.
I am sympathetic to the authors of these recent letters. I know that living in the downtown core of a city can come with a number of disruptions, and that living next to neighbors in crisis can sometimes be difficult, or even seem scary. But I would also ask that we approach this situation with a sense of understanding. When discussing these issues, I often make the case to people that if I was unsheltered, with no walls or doors to stay safe behind, I would probably go somewhere surrounded by other people, too. This makes even more sense when we recognize the fact that homeless people are far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than they are to commit one, and are more likely to be a victim than people who are housed. I would want to be somewhere where people could call for help if I needed it, too.
None of this is to say that the current situation at Town Square is sustainable or ideal. I would counter the claim made in one of the letters that city councilmembers “support this activity”. I don’t know anybody, on or off the Burien City Council, who wants to see people without shelter, in crisis, with nowhere to go. I don’t know anybody who wants our neighbors pushed to a last resort of camping in our parks. Our city council (myself included) voted to increase police presence in the downtown area to ensure the safety of all people there; the city has launched a new co-responder model to have mental health specialists accompany our officers when necessary; and we just recently approved an increase in our city’s human services budget to help provide more assistance to those in need. Steps are being taken to address these issues – though we all know more work is left to be done.
There is not a one size fits all solution for this situation. Meeting the needs of our vulnerable populations is not always an easy thing to do. The challenges people face are as diverse as the individuals struggling with them – and resources continue to be incredibly limited, and take time to access. We have no permanent shelter in this city at this time, shelters outside the city are often full, and many people in our city are on wait lists for housing that can take years to get through. Case workers that assist people with navigating support systems are often overloaded by the sheer number of individuals who need help, and can only offer what assistance is available. Nevertheless, we have people working diligently to grow our capacity to offer support, and many unhoused people ready to utilize these resources as soon as they become accessible.
As we work through these issues as a community, my hope is that we can find common ground. I agree with the authors of the previous letters in that I, too, believe everyone has a right to be in a safe and livable city. I also believe we need to be honest about the situation we are dealing with, and be mindful about both our perception and actions. And I believe we should all work together – to address not just the symptoms of the problems we are facing, but to address the root causes of the homelessness crisis, and ensure there is safe housing for all our people.
– Burien City Councilmember Cydney Moore
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Again, a city council member who only wants to discuss the peaceful unhoused and not those that are violent, doing drugs, and stealing. Her response was well-worded and lengthy; it took a very long time for her to mention our issues with crime (in one tiny paragraph). I believe she is correct in stating that the unhoused are more likely to be victims of violent crime; perhaps it is because the city refuses to recognize that a significant number of the unhoused are committing those crimes and should be removed.
Why do both sides of this argument think all unhoused should be treated the same? Whether it’s those that seem to say all homeless people are druggies and criminals and those, like Cydney Moore, who want us to believe they are all misunderstood, peaceful and afraid. Neither is completely true. Unhoused people that are committing crimes should be jailed. Maybe then we can take care of our most vulnerable unhoused residents-those who are just trying to survive. Perhaps then we can live together peacefully. Isn’t that what we all want?
Why does this letter not include one word about drug addiction?!! I find this writer to be as extreme as the writer that said “seeking a high not warmth”. Can we have a conversation about the public drug use? And that the majority of unhoused are users? Then maybe we can strategize solutions for the complex problems of homeless. And yes, I have spent lots of time in encampments cleaning up trash while “we heart Seattle organization” offers help and shelter.
This letter makes me think of the statements all the parents make that choose to not discipline their kids and teach them to live by rules. “I don’t want to offend my kids,” or “I don’t want to hurt their psyche” instead of teaching the importance of consequences. It’s passive and naive and does nothing to address who the real victims are when it comes to the violent unhoused. There are 3 types of unhoused. Addicts who burned all their bridges and have to turn to crime to keep their habit satisfied, mentally ill who can’t get the care they need so they wander around confused or violent, and the few left that are just plain down on their luck. We only seem to address the last category because we’re afraid of the first 2.
Thanks for reminding me who to vote against. Fix the problem. This letter says to me that you will do nothing to address the issues, instead you plan to listen to everyone’s opinion. We need action.
The situation near and around Burien City Hall is emblematic of the world we live in now with regard accountability. People are described as “without shelter”, “homeless” and “in crisis” which, in most cases, does not accurately represent the core issue – mental illness and/or drug abuse. By removing any language that implies accountability our Local, City and Federal governments can avoid their accountability specific to solving problems for the people they are elected to serve. What we see is Letters to the Editor from a Council member reinforcing a narrative that neither addresses citizen concern nor holds people accountable for their actions. In a recent Seattle Times article the new Regional Housing Authority chief Marc Dones stated it would take billions of dollars in one time expenditure and a billion dollar annual operating budget to “solve the problem” – it amounted to approximately $350,000 per person. While the true nature of this problem may never be discussed no one changes their behavior if there is no accountability.
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