Commentary: Cities around the Puget Sound are taking different approaches to homelessness


With Washington state (along with California, New York and Florida) topping the charts with the highest homeless populations, cities in Washington are taking different approaches to helping the homeless (at least those that want to be helped) off the streets and into shelters and homes. The challenge is providing a compassionate option while still enforcing local ordinances.

Burien is one of the latest cities to pass an ordinance that bans camping on public property. Bremerton recently approved a ban on public camping, and Marysville is considering mandatory minimum sentences for drugs and crime with a three strikes and 30 days in jail.

Even Seattle, the city that has struggled the most in a post pandemic era, is beginning to re-evaluate its policies. The results of the Seattle City Council pursuing the of defunding law enforcement and ignoring drug possession law are obvious. Restaurants, businesses and retailers are unable or unwilling to return to the downtown area because of the resulting rampant drug crime that often accompanies homelessness.

Seattle has seen some high profile businesses leave the downtown area for safety reasons, including Nike and Regal Cinemas. Fentanyl victims and crime is increasing at an alarming rate due to the Seattle City Council cutting public safety funding.

Employers like Amazon are now requiring office attendance for employees who have been working at home since the pandemic. This will help in restarting economic activity in the downtown center, but the underlying homelessness and crime issues have not been sufficiently dealt with and employees still don’t feel safe returning to the office.

Recently, the Seattle City Council passed a ordinance 6-3 (with councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales voting against the ordinance) that effectively classifies public drug use and possession as a gross misdemeanor. The new law will go a long way to start cleaning up the streets, but it’s not enough.

However, in an ominous development, the Seattle City Council is claiming that the city doesn’t have enough tax revenue to fund all the current city services. Any budget cuts would be considered an austerity budget. As the Seattle Times reports, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who has a salary of $134,170, says any cuts to the budget would deal a crippling blow to the residents of Seattle. The mis-named Revenue Stabilization Workgroup recently reported back to the City Council that the City was spending too much, and not enough taxes were being collected to cover the shortfall. No solutions for the shortfall were suggested.

The Downtown Seattle Association and other pro-business groups are working on solutions that will help kick start the economy in Seattle, but Seattle leadership is reluctant to take action. Businesses in Seattle want the city to focus on public safety and reduce taxes to clean up crime and stimulate job growth. By encouraging business growth, the long-term tax revenue for the city will stabilize and grow.

Thankfully, recent comments from Mayor Bruce Harrell have indicated that public safety is becoming a priority for the city.

Seattle leadership needs to continue focusing on fully restoring funding for public safety, hiring more officers and incentivizing businesses to return to the downtown area. A program of allowing the police to enforce the newly passed drug laws, arresting criminals and reducing taxes on business will revitalize the downtown core. New York did this in the 90s and saw a dramatic turnaround in the city. Seattle can do the same.

This, in turn, will generate the revenue for the city’s essential programs and reduce the tax burden on its citizens.

Burien, Bremerton and Marysville may be the model that Seattle needs to follow. Time will tell, but all indications from other cities that have started to help the homeless find adequate shelter and ban drug use, that the policies will work.


Mark Harmsworth is the director of the Small Business Center at the Washington Policy Center.