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As Seattle examines hostile architecture, Mike O’Brien seeks clarity for city’s unsheltered

‘If there’s some sensitive places that aren’t appropriate for people to be camping at all, let’s name them’

The West Emerson Overpass on the south side of the Ballard Bridge. A recently-erected fence blocks off the north side.
Courtesy of SDOT

Hostile architecture—or construction designed to keep people from lying down or hanging around for along period of time—is an omnipresent part of everyday life for those who are unsheltered. But it’s been an especially hot topic around Seattle lately after bike racks were installed by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) not to meet the needs of cyclists, but to keep a homeless camp from returning.

The bike racks are being moved, but incident gained national attention, anchoring a piece in The Guardian about hostile architecture—and highlighting the many ways the practice is used in the city.

“I’m looking out my window at City Hall, and there’s a bench on the plaza that’s got big arms on it for no real apparent reason,” City Councilor Mike O’Brien, who represents Ballard and the rest of District 6 on the City Council, told Curbed Seattle over the phone. “Just so people don’t sleep on it. I think [the arms have] probably been there longer than I’ve been here.”

The bike racks, the excessive arms on benches, and even fences around infrastructure are part of what O’Brien calls a “systemic issue” around the city. He’s seen it in a bench overlooking the Fremont Cut that lost a rain shield. He’s seen it in fenced-off highways. And, most recently, he’s seen it in a fence around the Ballard Bridge, erected by SDOT, as with the bike racks, soon after the city swept a homeless encampment.

O’Brien planned to confront interim SDOT director Goran Sparrman about the fence at a transportation committee meeting Tuesday where hostile architecture was discussed. Sparrman didn’t show.

SDOT maintains that, after reviewing the cost of potential fire damage, the department decided to erect the fence to protect “protect public safety, critical infrastructure, and a key transportation corridor.” A fire under the bridge could cost the city millions, said a statement from SDOT, and some staples of encampments, like “wooden structures, open flames, and propane tanks,” all put the bridge at risk.

O’Brien told us that if that’s the case, that’s fine. But there should be clarity around where people can sleep. “If the Ballard Bridge is a sensitive piece of infrastructure and the people who are managing the city say this is not an appropriate place for people to be, I can be convinced of that,” said O’Brien. “I’m not a bridge structure expert. But we got [thousands of] people sleeping outside.”

A point-in-time count conducted in January 2017 found that out of more than 11,000 people experiencing homelessness across King County, more than 5,000 people were unsheltered—sleeping in a tent, a vehicle, in an abandoned building, or on the street.

“The people who [would light] a fire under the bridge, there’s not trying to blow up the bridge. We know that,” said O’Brien. “They’re trying to stay warm and maybe cook some food.”

If that part of the Ballard Bridge isn’t an acceptable option for people with nowhere to go, asks O’Brien, is there a place where we’ll let people camp for now?

“We have tons of overpasses that are frankly logical for people to be,” said O’Brien, giving the south side of the bridge by the offramps to Fisherman’s Terminal as an example. “There’s no businesses or residences around it. It gets messy and we have to clean it up, but frankly when I look at the options in the city... if someone’s sleeping outdoors in our community, that’s a pretty good spot. They’re undercover, and they’re not bothering anybody... We spent [money] to put a fence up. It’s like, why?”

O’Brien has introduced two pieces of legislation in his tenure that sought to provide clarity for people experiencing homelessness outside of the shelter system. One, which would have made it harder to evict encampments from some city land, drew ire in local headlines (like “Council plan would allow homeless camps on thousands of acres”) and was ultimately dropped. Another would have helped people living in their vehicles from collecting costly tickets while being connected to services—but an early draft was leaked by City Attorney candidate Scott Lindsay, and that effort ultimately failed, too.

O’Brien tells us that it’s all been about being proactive, instead of just putting up fences behind encampments as they’re gradually chased from location to location.

“If there’s some sensitive places that aren’t appropriate for people to be camping at all, let’s name them,” said O’Brien. “Nothing’s ever binding ever and there’s no clarity about what we can do about that stuff.”

“Nobody should be sleeping outdoors. I’m the first to say that,” clarified O’Brien. “But unless you can show me a path where I can get 2,000 people indoors tonight... say look, there’s a lot of bad options, here’s the ones we’re not going to enforce... I’ll defer to the experts to pick it.”

The city does have some options for those who have to camp—city-sanctioned encampments were first authorized in 2015. “Those are great,” said O’Brien. “Those are full.”

It’s not like the city hasn’t done some positive things to address the homelessness crisis, O’Brien told us. They’re just not at a high enough capacity.

“We were successful at moving a lot of people indoors last summer, but it wasn’t necessarily [just] because of the incredible work of the navigation team,” said O’Brien. He said that success can also be contributed to the options available: Hundreds of beds opened up, including a low-barrier shelter on First Hill, new tiny houses, and a new shelter in Licton Springs. “If you give people better options, they take them, and those are full now.”

We can build more housing options to transition people into, said O’Brien, but people need a place to go in the meantime. And he says he’s open to different options—he just wants a solution.

“I really hope [Mayor Jenny Durkan] rolls out a vision for the city in the coming weeks and that vision whatever it is will be controversial with some folks,” said O’Brien. “I will engage in that debate and I hope we get to some resolution we can.... We have new [members of the City Council], a new mayor. Let’s have a dialogue about what we want to do.”

Ballard Bridge

, Seattle, WA 98107