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What can Seattle’s bike movement do to help end homelessness?

While Mayor Ed Murray was giving a speech on the homelessness emergency in Seattle, five people were shot and two killed at a notorious camping area where Beacon Hill and I-5 meet.

Though information is still scarce, the mass shooting of Seattleites is a tragedy and highlights yet another terrible way life without a home is so dangerous.

We wrote earlier this week about HALA and the city’s proposed plan to increase affordable housing. At the far end of that housing spectrum is, of course, homelessness. 3,000 students in Seattle Public Schools are homeless, and four of five of them are children of color.

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Without homes, people die. Last year, 66 homeless people died in Seattle. Our city’s lack of shelter is a public health crisis.

“If there had been an earthquake, if there had been a flood that had killed 66 people, the City would ask for and expect aid from the State and Federal government,” said Mayor Ed Murray Tuesday (full speech PDF). “And while this crisis has developed over time, the effects have been equally devastating.”

Murray outlined a number of ways the city is working to address homelessness, like increasing shelter beds, reworking the city’s approach to homelessness services and a housing levy vote in November double the size of the previous levy.

We can end homelessness. But we need to take even more dramatic action.

Nickelsville, the Low Income Housing Institute and the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd partnered recently to build 15 tiny houses on church property in the Central District near my home. Each house cost about $2,200 to build and are wired for electricity. As with other tent cities in town, the tiny house community is organized and keeps an eye out for each other. Residents get a place to call their own, and that’s a huge deal. With a solid base, people can focus on accessing services, finding work, learning a trade or pursuing their personal life goals.

What absolutely does not help is denigrating our homeless neighbors. Just like you, every person without a home has lived a unique life and has a unique story to tell. Reading Real Change (or better, volunteering) is a great way to hear these stories. Because once you start seeing homeless neighbors as a singular group of undesirables who deserve their life struggles, you’ve shielded yourself from truly loving your neighbors.

Here’s how Mayor Murray put it in his speech:

Instead of cooperation and a shared voice, we have seen too much division and extreme rhetoric about who homeless people are and how to solve the crisis. In one tent on our streets, you may find a family that lost their home in a personal financial crisis. Go on down the street to another unauthorized encampment, you will find a person who is struggling in the grips of addiction.

In another tent, will be someone who is either dealing drugs or systematically engaging in property crimes to feed his or her habit.

So what does this have to do with bikes?

For one, look at these photos by the Seattle Times. That’s a big stack of bikes. Bike theft is a kind of street currency, something easily stolen, traded and sold. I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions about bike theft in Seattle since starting this blog, and I understand how frustrating and even devastating it can be to have a bike stolen. A bike is your access to the city, it’s not easy to replace if you don’t have much money or insurance, and it’s a very personal item you grow attached to.

On the other side, a lot of bike theft is the result of much larger problems, such as extreme poverty and addiction. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything to prevent bike theft, but it does mean that we won’t get very far without going all in to address those larger problems. That’s why I can’t stand seeing phrases like “Death to Bike Thieves” because if those bike thieves are also homeless, death is a very real possibility.

It’s also why I can’t stand hearing people call for police action against people who simply look shady and have a nice bike. Profiling either on economic or racial lines (or a bit of both) is a very real danger and challenge for people, and the fight against bike theft should not make that worse.

Though there are certainly cases of big organized burglary rings that should be treated as such, bike theft as a crime of desperation needs to be viewed as a part of the public health crisis of homelessness and addiction.

On the positive side, bikes can be a huge lift to people struggling with homelessness. Once you have a bike, your transportation is nearly free. The bus is cheap compared to a car, but it’s expensive if affording even food and shelter is a challenge. A lot of homeless people use bikes to get around, and this is a good thing. It’s also why it’s problematic to profile a poor person by saying they stole it.

And, of course, it’s yet another reason why building a connected network of safe bike lanes is an important idea: It creates a very low cost transportation network in a city that is growing increasingly more expensive. People who are homeless deserve to get around the city safely, too.

So in this state of emergency, I put the question to you: What can the Seattle bike and safe streets movement do to be part of the solution to homelessness in our city and region?

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41 responses to “What can Seattle’s bike movement do to help end homelessness?”

  1. Jeff Dubrule

    Subsidized Pronto memberships, with some mechanism for not requiring a credit-card to secure the bikes. Stations near the established homeless encampments, shelters, and social-services. A Pronto is easily recognized, so they hopefully wouldn’t have much value as “street currency”.
    Provide a way you can see at a full kiosk where Prontos should be rebalanced to, and provide credit towards the membership in return for moving a bike.

    1. veganbiker

      FWIW, last year a Pronto bike was somehow obtained by a homeless man living around the Ballard Bridge area! He rode it around for a while until I spotted it with a flat tire locked to a bike rack at the Ballard Commons Park. I called Pronto and it was picked up later in the day.

  2. Marley

    Low cost resources that allow people to repair their own bicycles are also incredibly important, as bike shops can be expensive for those who have little. Seattle has a few places where people can fix their own bikes at low costs, often in a co-op model with knowledgeable resources on staff to help with mechanical questions. Here are a few that I know of:

    -The Bikery (full disclosure- I’m on the Board)
    -South Seattle Tool Library
    -Capitol Hill Tool Library
    -Bike Shack

    Many of these places run on donations of money, volunteer time, and donated parts. If you’re fortunate enough to not need their resources, but can instead contribute, this is a great way to help make a difference!

    1. Jessi

      I was thinking of this while reading Tom’s post. A place where homeless can take their bikes for help repairing or replacing parts.

      Giving out cards with a “free do it yourself lube and tune” would help people know where to go to access those services.

  3. Jeff Dubrule

    Repair stands, with pumps & tools on cables (like at the Westlake streetcar stop). Make sure they’re well-lit, so that anyone would feel comfortable & safe using them, even at night.
    Encourage businesses & social-service providers to have these (Peddler Brewing does), or at least a small toolkit behind the counter.

  4. In my anecdotal observations, bike theft is more correlated to meth addiction (and other drugs), than to homelessness. Illegalizing and persecuting people who are homeless is wrong-headed, but aggressively pursuing bike thieves may help police address more serious issues like meth labs and dangerous drug dealing operations operated by people who happen to be homeless. Seattle’s commitment to restorative justice and rehabilitation gives me some hope that a strategy of using bike theft to find drug rings would be help many people in hopeless situations.

    1. bobby

      I mostly agree with Brock. Being homeless is not a criminal act, and does not require a police solution. Likewise for those with an addiction. However, buying drugs requires currency, and bikes seem to be one of the forms of payment accepted.
      As long as we have a (seemingly) growing number of addicts, who do not have access to, or refuse services, the thefts will continue. Witness the current bicycle shop operating under the south end of the Ballard Bridge.

  5. Central Districtite

    “What absolutely does not help is denigrating our homeless neighbors. Just like you, every person without a home has lived a unique life and has a unique story to tell. Reading Real Change (or better, volunteering) is a great way to hear these stories.”

    One question: Has anyone seen data on where homeless people in Seattle are coming from? What % of those in Seattle are from Seattle or had a job in Seattle before they became homeless? If you’re trying to fix a problem that can super simplistically be defined as:

    people loose the ability to shelter themselves–>homeless population–>temporary shelter–>permanent housing and help

    it’s helpful to know why the people in the step one are becoming homeless in the first place and whether this is our problem, or as some claim, the suburbs and even other municipalities from other states are giving people one way bus tickets to Seattle. There’s lots of talk about how to get people out of being homeless, but seemingly less about why people are becoming homeless in the first place (or where people who are already homeless are coming from)

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Certainly, it would be a huge help if communities all across the region (nation?) also took drastic action, too. But Seattle can only directly make decisions for Seattle (though King County is also part of the homelessness emergency declaration).

      But in the end, once someone is living in Seattle, they’re a Seattleite. The poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty comes to mind…

      1. Central Districtite

        Homeless services are part of our city’s social safety net. While I appreciate the sentiment, it’s unrealistic to expect that Seattle’s social safety net can catch those from other cities as well.

        Are we receiving sizable numbers of homeless people from other cities? I don’t know. That’s what a police precinct captain said at a public meeting, but I haven’t seen it corroborated by data. I also haven’t seen it refuted by data either. Perhaps the data doesn’t exist, but collecting such data would seem critical to understanding the sources of homeless people in Seattle to help solve this crisis.

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        Sure. I agree that collecting more data on the causes and sources of homelessness is important. But in the meantime, it’s winter and a lot of people are sleeping outside.

        Plus, it’s not like we’re gonna deport people back to Shoreline or wherever. If people are living here and they want to be here, then that’s that. We should welcome them as neighbors.

      3. Central Districtite

        For the hypothetical: Perhaps not, but we could

        1) Send Shoreline the bill via an inter-local agreement (if we are to accept their homeless in the future)
        2) Make it clear that future Shoreline homeless migrants will not be accepted (if we are not to accept their homeless in the future)
        3) Give services first to people with some evidence of prior residency or work in Seattle, and then to people without documentation or from elsewhere (sounds like Murray is saying we’re $46 million short, so allocation decisions have to be made somehow)
        4) Demand that they help lobby for more state/federal funding

      4. Tom Fucoloro

        Migrants? They’re people, neighbors. And they have every right to be in Seattle as you or I.

      5. Josh

        Restricting the movement of homeless people from neighboring cities, or even other states, would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in order to repeal Section 2, which grants citizens equality throughout the states. (“The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.”)

    2. Andres Salomon

      I agree with Tom; if they’re in Seattle, they’re Seattlites. That said..

      The majority of homeless people in Seattle are from Seattle.

      ” the majority of single adults (70%) and just over half of families with children
      (51%) report a last permanent address from inside City of Seattle limits.”

      “These young people were from almost every ZIP code in King County, and mostly from King County. Seventy-five of young people are from King County directly.”

      “Here’s a fun stat – 87% of community members experiencing homelessness in King County are from King County.”

      And the suburbs? They complain about homeless people Seattle coming to use their shelters:

      I have a hard time believing that homeless people come to Seattle for the top-notch treatment we give them.

      1. ninjaface

        I agree, David, that induced demand is a talking point of the right–if you feed them/provide them with something more will come, there are places where this does have merit.

        Ann Arbor, where I just moved from two weeks ago (I love it here!), has a robust homeless population. Because most of the surrounding area is conservative, and thus are belligerent towards homeless people, the city acts as a magnet. It is told that police from those areas will give bus tickets–or even drive them–as a means to rid themselves of them.

    3. Andres Salomon

      And speaking of Maddux, he just penned a great piece on the city’s response to homelessness. It’s definitely worth a read.


      1. David Moser

        Yes, the vast majority of homeless individuals and families in this region were living in this region before they became homeless. The whole “induced demand” argument that funding services only encourages migration is simply a right wing talking point to undermine said services.

  6. Van Wolf

    Speaking as someone in Shoreline, do you think homeless can be confined to one area? It can’t. People camp out at the Shoreline city line and within because of safety and available camping space. They know that, mostly, they won’t be harassed on the interurban trail and they easily go back to Seattle in the morning to get what little services are available.
    The camps in Seattle are full, the places the homeless can go otherwise just aren’t safe. Do you know how proud I am that people feel safe camping in my town? Even if said town provides what amounts to zero help for the homeless?
    It needs to be said that homelessness is not the problem for one town or city. It is the result of a national problem, and it becomes highlighted in the places that the homeless congregate. While Shoreline does need to get on board helping in this issue, I feel we would all be remiss not to acknowledge that these people do not “belong” to one town or another. I would think that would be more obvious as they are, by definition, homeless.
    Who cares where they are coming from? North, South, East, West, it does not matter, they could come from Los Angeles and they’d still be just as much my neighbor in the biblical sense as my literal ones (not that I am religious, but piety can extend beyond the tenants of faith and be expressed in action).
    As for how bikes can help; there’s a lot of places. First, cyclists are able to spot the homeless camps far better than people in cars, this can help bring people in who need the services but are unaware of how to get them. Send a fleet of us out with info and such on the ORCA lift card, or other services. Let the homeless know people on bikes are a part of the solution. Second, providing bicycles to the homeless reduces theft, while bikes are drug currency you can devalue that by flooding the market. This also provides a ‘reliable source of transportation’ for those who would rather eat than put money on a lift card. Third, if we can’t or won’t do any those things we can at least change our attitude.
    I have been homeless before, it really can happen to anyone. The despair that follows… I cannot express.
    Have you ever been so hungry you wept? Like you could smell other people’s food cooking but you cried because you couldn’t shut down your morals long enough to steal it? I’ve never admitted it, but yeah, I’ve been there.
    Once you’re down it is very hard to get back up, and society isn’t inclined to let you back up. The “services” offered usually make you jump through so many hoops, impossible qualifications, or located so far away you can’t travel there regularly.
    Addiction usually happens then, most people think its what landed you on the street in the first place. Not that it doesn’t happen that way, but its more likely you were on the street before you were ever addicted to anything.
    That’s just a few ideas, and maybe some hope at shifting attitudes.

  7. Tim F

    This conversation just reminded me of a book I just read (partially). Heatwave. The subtitle is something like A Social Autopsy of a Disaster in Chicago. The story is about another non-traditional disaster with a high death toll for vulnerable populations. While the specifics are different, I’d recommend it highly (the library has a copy). The author seems to see the invisible deaths as an indicator of societal health. He also examines how some communities and neighborhoods were more resilient than other neighboring communities that on the surface are demographically similar. A lot of the discussion is around walk ability, livability and community networks/social fabric that I think are very familiar to the cycling community.

  8. Dave

    One thing that contributes to homelessness in the form of increasingly expensive housing is our culture’s support for absolutely unlimited property rights in the form of no limit on the selling price of land and buildings. This is the most politically incorrect thing one can suggest in our culture but there has to be not only stringent, no-exceptions rent ceilings but a fixed, finite limit on the selling price of any piece of real property. There must also be punitively high taxes on short term “flipping” of properties–speculation in housing stock is a very real version of swinging one’s fist until it hits another’s nose. I believe that our society refuses to look at what the real estate speculation and development rackets do to housing affordability.

    1. Josh

      Rent ceilings are extremely effective at suppressing the supply of rental property.

      Just look at New York City, where rent control successfully preserved the WWII housing shortage for decades after it had been resolved in the rest of the country.

      Seattle and King County already have many policies in place designed to reduce the supply of affordable housing, though that’s usually phrased as “maintain property values” when looking for votes.

      Minimum lot sizes, minimum home sizes, minimum parking requirements … all designed to ensure neighborhoods don’t have to put up with people who can’t afford a middle-class standard of living.

    2. Josh

      If you don’t allow short-term property ownership, how will you finance renovation of deteriorated housing stock?

      Many run-down homes go on the market in poor enough condition that they don’t qualify for the sort of financing many poorer home buyers need. Who is going to pay for the repairs and upgrades needed to qualify the home for FHA, VA, or other government-guaranteed mortgage programs?

      If you prohibit people from buying, renovating, and selling these homes in a short time, you eliminate a significant supply of affordable home ownership. The only people allowed to buy these homes would be the well-financed who don’t need help with a mortgage.

      There are only so many people with enough cash to buy an un-mortgageable house and renovate it for their own use, so really, you’d be forcing these homes out of low-income ownership and pushing them into the hands of landlords who can afford to buy, renovate, and hold on to the property instead of selling it.

      1. Dave

        Then, we need a CCC type housing renovation corps publicly funded at the federal level. We also need legislation to allow locallities to sieze and reallocate housing vacant due to sleazy banking and mortgage writing. The market has to be tamed. Market priced housing will probably continue to inflate beyond what many people can afford unless we do something really crazy like index the minimun wage to housing costs–is San Francisco, for instance, ready for an $85/hour minimum wage?

  9. ronp

    Great post and comments. The one sad aspect of biking to work from NE Seattle is seeing tents and people forced to sleep outside as I approach downtown. Locally, housing first should be our total goal, and hopefully integrated social services. We need good land use laws to encourage housing construction too.

    I really would like to whack $200 billion from our national “defense” budget and put it exclusively towards social housing (we would still be number one and spending 2x China).

    There is more discussion about basic incomes lately too, and that would help significantly — https://blog.ycombinator.com/basic-income

    1. Dave

      RonP, great comment and suggestion–in some ways, our country will not deserve any defending if it keeps going the way it is, homelessness a terribly sad example.

  10. Erik

    You’re not gonna end homelessness in Seattle when the rest of the country doesn’t provide the same or better support as here. Seattle is like a cell with higher concentrations of sodium inside than out, eventually the higher sodium concentration attracts more water in. You can’t continually provide services and expect to keep up in this environment. The more money we pump into the problem the more demand there will be.

    1. Andres Salomon

      There’s a big assumption there that the rest of the country is going to stay the same while we provide services. Just like with minimum wage and other things that Seattle has led on – if we can provide a good example to the rest of the country, there’s a strong chance other cities will follow suit.

  11. Jay

    On the issue of Homelessness. We need to STOP thinking in terms of one answer. The causes of homelessness would create a complicated database. The results are drug/alcohol use, of course they would be.

    Maybe we could begin rest stations with showers, vaccines and basic medical nursing, clothing/shoe (tent, blanket) repair offered for 30 minutes – hour of service (can they mend or teach mending, clean the rest stop, bring in the P Patch for a few beds of veges for them to care for).

    The bicycle issue is 2 fold. The UW has the money to create and distribute flyers, ticket bikes not properly locked (or properly lock the bike with a ticket the student has 7 days to go to X to learn to lock a bike. The 4th ticket and the bike is donated out). All bikes left out after 11pm (or whenever) are picked up. The city can start a campaign to educate cyclist on how to lock bikes and saddles. There is no reason to encourage theft! Then to add to these rest stops add bike programs, bike mechanic classes, and repair stations.

  12. Dave

    On the subject of bike theft, what would it take to get bike shops to embargo cable locks?
    We all know that there are real locks–better quality U locks, those Abus link things, and a few others. But cable locks and cheapo flat-key U locks are wishful thinking; any lock can be cut or broken but these pieces of shit make your bike a sitting duck. I’m a bike store owner in a different part of the state and I don’t sell shit locks. Anyone into this idea?

    1. Josh

      So someone who gets to work on a $75 used Mall-Wart bike because that’s what he can afford should have to pay for a lock designed for a bike worth stealing?

      I should have to buy a cumbersome U-lock for use in my corporate parking where no bikes have been stolen in the past decade?

      Cable locks are perfectly suitable for many situations — don’t blame the tool for a bad user.

      If you want to ride a bike that’s valuable enough to steal, and you want to park it in a theft-prone location, buy a lock that’s designed for that situation, but don’t force everyone else to do the same.

      1. Dave

        Anybody riding the $75 used Walmart bike can afford it stolen less than someone with three Davidsons in the garage–they need a good lock even more!

      2. Josh

        So, does your shop give these good locks away for free, or should the kids skip dinner this week?

      3. jay

        You might note that Dave said: “what would it take to get bike shops to embargo cable locks?”
        I know of at least one bike shop that doesn’t sell cable locks. There has got to be more profit on a $100 lock than there is on a $10 one, it shouldn’t be too hard to convince a shop selling high end bikes to not carry crap locks, someone buying a $2-4K bike is not going to walk out because you don’t have a cheap lock. Wal-Mart, Fred Meyer, your neighborhood hardware store, etc. will still sell cheap locks. The person who can only afford a $75 bike probably won’t be going to Dave’s shop anyway.
        Legislating expensive locks is probably a non-starter, as is the seizing of improperly locked bikes that other “Jay” suggested. Now, it is illegal to leave ones keys in ones automobile, so one could imagine some requirement for locking bikes, but requiring a lock either worth more, or weighting more, than the bike being locked would probably not get far. After all, it is a small step from mandating how bikes are locked to requiring guns to be locked at ALL times. Ok, that was a bit of hyperbole, it was tried in DC and deemed unconstitutional by SCOTUS, but still, the anti bike people will be wary of setting any presidents on personal liberty, and the card carrying liberals may hesitate to make poor people buy a lock costing mote than a weeks groceries.

  13. Molly

    A small but important action people interested in bikes and the less fortunate can do – at no cost – is lobby for a change in the King County helmet law penalty. Instead of a fine, the penalty could be to listen to a lecture and have to take and put on a universal fit helmet the arresting officer gives you. If the goal is to get more people wearing helmets then giving people helmets is 100% more effective than charging them $ and leaving them with less $ for a helmet. There are so many ways that the poor and homeless are forced to pay extra fines for being poor and homeless. This law could (and should I believe) be adjusted from another tool for harassment into a more positive effort.

  14. Tom and commenters,

    This post and your responses are evidence that we can thoughtfully discuss and identify solutions for people who are homeless in our city and broader region. What I particularly appreciate about this conversation above is that Tom’s article calmly sets out the problem and many writers likewise respond with new ideas. As chair of the City Council’s new Human Services and Public Health committee (and as an avid bicycle rider), I concur that we all have a role to play in helping people find homes, get connected with needed services, and frankly find new ways to get along. This takes heart as well as a coordinated approach among departments, local, state and federal government, and neighborhood involvment. At my next committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday, February 10 at 2:00 p.m., I welcome you to attend, offer your suggestions, and hear what and how the City’s Human Services Department is addressing emergency needs. Thanks for your involvement.

  15. Ballard Biker

    Raising taxes seems to be the default answer for just about every problem in Seattle. Yes, raise taxes, that will make housing more affordable.

    1. Dave

      Or move tax money. Home values are inflated by proximity to good schools. Take the schools’ share out of property taxes; add it to sales tax. Support schools state wide, distribute school money more evenly, and remove another housing-inflationary factor.

  16. […] can do a lot of things, maybe this is also one of them? What can Seattle’s bike movement do to help end homelessness? As the article points out only if we don’t decide every homeless person with a decent bike is […]

  17. […] few weeks ago, I asked the question: What can Seattle’s bike movement do to help end homelessness? Well, one way to help may be volunteering at Seattle Food Rescue, transforming your time and leg […]

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