by Elizabeth Alvarado
In a continued discussion about homelessness and crime in the city, the recently established Neighborhood Safety Alliance (NSA) hosted Washington State Senator Mark Miloscia (D- 30th Legislative District) and others in a panel on Wednesday night.
The group, consisting of members from Ballard, Magnolia, Queen Anne, was joined by Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, representatives from various Seattle neighborhoods, including from South Seattle, and former homeless drug addicts who spoke about their struggles at the Seattle Children’s Theatre.
NSA previously hosted three similar discussions, which were mainly focused on increasing police presence in Seattle neighborhoods to tackle problems certain residents see with homelessness and long-term RV camping.
Cindy Pierce, the president of the Neighborhood Safety Alliance said she hoped the audience would find the meeting informational and educational.
Residents from different neighborhoods had a chance to voice their concerns, as well.
Damon Benefield, a real estate professional and resident of Rainier Beach claimed he once witnessed a drive-by shooting near his neighborhood.
“I was in the Marine Corp and I felt safer in the Marine Corp than I do in Seattle,” Benefield told a stunned audience.
NSA members had encouraged South Seattlites to attend the meeting after a spate of gun violence in recent weeks.The crowd on Wednesday tended towards mostly white and older.
Scott Lindsay, Mayor Ed Murray’s Special Assistant on Police Reform and Public Safety, said the mayor has taken steps to try to fix these problems.
“We’ve seen year over year significant increases in homelessness and the mayor has declared a state of emergency, which prompted an infusion over of over $7 million of additional funds,” said Lindsay, who explained that these funds have gone towards shelter spaces and cleanup activities.
One of the issues within the police department has been a lack of staff, which O’Toole addressed as she took the stage.
“The department has been understaffed and yes, we’ve really accelerated recruitment and hiring now and I am committed to putting those officers that we hired out on the field and visible in the community,” said O’Toole. “Because that enhanced visibility will be a deterrent to crime.”
O’Toole also said she wants the department to get better at responding to non-emergency calls to help people feel safer in their neighborhoods.
“It’s all about our children feeling safe. We want people to walk our streets and feel confident that we’re all working together to make this a safer city,” said O’Toole.
The police chief’s remarks resonated with audience member Sarah Walsh who has children of her own.
“Of course, safety is always something I worry about for my kids. I came here to see what exactly we can do to make Seattle safe again,” said Walsh.
Joined by O’Toole was Assistant Chief, Steve Wilske, who spoke on the improvements made in the past month, specifically in Ballard where many RVs have gathered illegally for long periods of time. Wilske said that 31 of the 151 RVs in the neighborhood have now left the area.
“The SODO area is actually where we’re going to start our enforcement strategy next. The enforcement strategy will be the same as the one we have in Ballard where we’ll contact people and at a minimum offer them services two different times, prior to taking enforcement for parking violations,” said Wilske. “My goal is to not criminalize the homeless. The goal is to get them moved into services.”
In order for those in attendance to better understand the plights of the homeless, Rachel Angerman, a drug addiction recovery specialist, and Dustin Davies spoke about their pasts experience with homelessness and drug addiction.
Angerman explained how her journey as an addict led her through many treatment centers which she shared were a large part of the problem with recovery for addicts.
Many centers’ treatment period last just 30 days, a duration that often does not allow addicts to fully have their problems addressed.
“My life is really dedicated to helping people out of life on the streets and out of addiction. Treatment looks different for everybody,” said Angerman. “The longer we can keep someone in treatment the better their chance at success, so 30 day treatment centers are a waste of time and money.”
Davies agreed with the points Angerman made, but also added that he believes people should be clean and sober if they wish to receive services.
“If you want services, you should be clean and sober. If you want food stamps, you should be clean and sober,” said Davies, to cheers from many in the audience.
The meeting concluded with Miloscia, the Chair of the Washington State Senate Accountability and Reform Committee and Vice-Chair of the Human Services, Mental Health, and Housing Committee, speaking on what he’d like to see in the future in terms of homelessness.
“My goals are the same as yours: to end homelessness and poverty and have the most efficient, effective and ethical government,” said Miloscia who encouraged community members to speak out about homelessness to their elected officials in order to encourage change.
Miloscia said Seattle needs strong leaders at the county, city and state government level to enforce the law and quality government with real measures and housing plans that get results.
“This is what democracy looks like,” said Miloscia, “regular folks taking action.”
Elizabeth Alvarado is a junior at the University of Washington majoring in journalism. Her work has been featured in The Seattle Globalist, The UW Daily, College Magazine, Fanciful Magazine and Drama in the Hood.