Facing a Dilemma: Homelessness & Public Lands

Every night, more than 3,000 of our community’s people have no indoor place to sleep or shelter — and this number is rising. Regardless of why people become homeless — a health crisis, loss of a job, a substance-abuse problem, a childhood lost to foster care, something else — these are fellow human beings and neighbors who need our help, starting with a safe place to get out of the elements. Without sufficient shelter beds and affordable housing, many choose to camp in public parks and greenspaces. Indeed, the City of Seattle counts more than 690 unauthorized encampments, many on public land.

Our core conviction is that that sustainability emerges when people and environment thrive jointly.

This use of public land may be understandable, yet it is not acceptable. Our public parks and greenspaces are intended for the safe enjoyment of all, including children. Moreover, thousands of citizens pour time and passion into caring for the parks through programs like the Green Seattle Partnership, an alliance of Forterra, the City and others. These volunteers’ contributions should not be undermined by those occupying, and at times damaging, greenspace by camping. Plus it’s worth observing that — given the geography of homelessness — many of the most-affected parks serve the stressed, lower-income neighborhoods whose residents have greatest need for safe, relaxing places to relax and recreate.

Ultimately the way out of today’s problem is creating more housing along with changing the circumstances and systems that strand people in homelessness.

Forterra exists to foster a sustainable city and region. Our core conviction is that that sustainability emerges when people and environment thrive jointly. So today’s circumstances thrust us on the horns of a dilemma. And we can’t just wish it away.

As Councilmember Lisa Herbold has said, “The reality is that people are and will, for the near term, be living outdoors and that no one has a magic wand to change that reality overnight.”

Yet the mayor is right, too, asserting “There are areas in this city where it is unacceptable to have people camp. We want to find a way to get people places they can camp, but at the same time we can’t have people in our parks or on our sidewalks, or on school property or areas where they are at risk.”

Forterra strongly urges the Seattle City Council to chart a path forward that both acknowledges the humanitarian crisis and honors the need to keep vital public lands truly public. To the extent that green areas owned by the City must be used as campsites, we urge that they be carefully and consultatively chosen, few in number, equitably distributed, provided with vital services — and kept temporary.

Ultimately the way out of today’s problem is creating more housing along with changing the circumstances and systems that strand people in homelessness. None of that will be easy, but in this moment of regional growth, prosperity and innovation, it is surely possible.

Forterra stands ready and eager to contribute our skills in community-building and real estate to help. To that end, we recently launched the Forterra Strong Communities Fund to increase the future availability of property for affordable homes and locally-owned small businesses. Joined to the efforts of others, we hope to be part of a solution.

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