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"Tony Robinson is one of the most active church leaders in the United States, greatly in demand as he teaches congregations and denominations about church life. His work has a deep theological underpinning, which many congregational-development gurus don't have."

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author of The Gospel and the New York Times and And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament

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The other day I asked a friend who had served in the administration of Seattle’s former mayor, Greg Nickels, what he made of the current level of homelessness in Seattle. Last fall Mayor Murray joined other west coast mayors in proclaiming a “homelessness state of emergency.”

We see that emergency all around our new neighborhood of Ballard. In addition to a new city supported and sanctioned encampment on Ballard’s main thoroughfare, Market Street, and a new safe park for people living in vehicles, there are tent encampments in many places in Ballard -- under railroad trestles, in industrial areas, along the Burke-Gilman Bike Path.

My friend thought for a long time before responding to my question. When he did he said he was “confused.” He went on to say that everything he knew suggested there was a correlation between economic downturns and homelessness, but that no longer seemed to be the case. The local economy is good. Unemployment is low. There are jobs. But homelessness not only persists, but grows.

There are many factors contributing to homelessness: the high cost of housing, addiction, and mental illness among them.

But “confusing” seems right -- an honest admission.

We’ve tended to approach homelessness with a problem/ solution format. Problem: homelessness. Solution: more housing, more affordable housing, more shelters, more sanctioned encampments. Applying these “solutions” has not solved the “problem.” We’re confused. We’re frustrated. Maybe even angry. We’ve tried to “fix” this, but homelessness stubbornly resists our fixes.

Sometimes admitting our confusion, our frustration, and the failure of our usual approaches to a problem, can be a humbling beginning to finding another way, another approach.

I’ve wondered if a part of what’s missing is a community norm that says “homelessness is not really okay.” This would cut two ways. On one hand, it means more safe and clean shelters -- enough that no one has to live on the street or under the freeway in a tent. On the other, it would mean that tent/ homelessness encampments on public lands would not be tacitly allowed and sanctioned -- as is presently the case.

It’s very hard for a liberal city and culture like Seattle to say “no.” We seem to think that if we provide low-cost housing, shelter beds and services, people will use them and get on with improving their lot in life. This is true for some. And we should, as a city and county, make every effort to provide clean and safe shelter for all of those in need in need of it.

But we should also say, and mean it when we say, that unsanctioned and permanent homeless encampments on public lands, will not be tacitly tolerated and supported.

If someone wants to live in a tent on their own land, that’s their business. But allowing people to live on public lands is not good for them or for a community.  

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