Morning Crank: What the City Calls a Homeless Crisis

1. On Friday, after significant pushback on social media (including dozens of folks who retweeted my coverage on Twitter), KIRO 7 news took down a map identifying the precise location of unsanctioned homeless encampments around the city, submitted by viewers and verified by the station. The map page also encouraged viewers to approach encampments and take photos and videos.

The map was posted on Wednesday and identified as a tool to help KIRO “track” homeless encampments, which can be as few as three tents, “amid what the City of Seattle calls a homeless crisis.” The explanation went on to say that “Seattle leaders do not keep a public map of homeless camps, so we are working with the community to make one.”

The mayor’s office told me there’s a very good reason the  city doesn’t publish its list of homeless encampment locations: To do so could put homeless people in even more danger than they already are. Fifty-eight percent of homeless women experienced domestic violence, according to the city’s recent survey of more than 1,000 people experiencing homelessness; mapping the precise locations where homeless people are camped out, with photos that may show identifying possessions is an invitation to abusers to go looking for their victims. (Originally, the page said nothing to discourage viewers from photographing people’s faces, but the station later added a disclaimer to that effect ).

On KIRO TV Wednesday night, a reporter promoted the encampment map while standing in front of several tents directly across from KIRO headquarters.

On Thursday, under pressure from the public to stop doxxing the homeless (doxxing, here, refers to the practice of finding out where people live and identifying that location publicly in order to encourage others to target and harass them), KIRO changed the justification for the map. The map was a bit more specific (and less skeptical) about the “homeless crisis, included information about how to submit a “service request” for the city to clean up an encampment, and noted that the city also had information about shelter on its website:

Meanwhile, KIRO continued to promote the tracking map on its nightly news broadcast and on Reddit.

Finally, on Friday—two days after the “tracking” map went up—KIRO replaced the map with a generic-looking new one, with shaded areas designating giant blocks of the city where viewers had reported camps to the station. The new map is useless for tracking, and it’s unclear why KIRO left it up; what it does reveal is that the KIRO viewers who felt motivated to report and, in some cases, approach and photograph encampments are all on the western half of the city. To look at the map, you’d think Southeast Seattle—where encampments certainly exist, just as they do all over the city—is encampment-free, whereas Queen Anne and parts of Ballard and Magnolia are overrun by tents.

KIRO’s explanation for this latest version of the map was that they had talked to experts and received new information from the mayor’s office that the city does, in fact, have a map of encampment locations, “an important detail they would not previously disclose.” They also changed their justification for the map yet again, saying it was intended to “[show] just how widespread the homeless encampment problem is across the city.”

KIRO’s claim that they thought the mayor’s office doesn’t know where encampments are is highly implausible, as is the notion that self-reporting by “the community” (which, as the new map shows, is a highly self-selected group) will produce an accurate or helpful picture of encampments in Seattle. I simply don’t buy the explanation that KIRO just thought the city wasn’t tracking encampments and decided to help by asking their readers to send in locations as a public service to the city, especially given that this wasn’t their justification until they got pushback from viewers concerned about the wellbeing of the people’s whose locations KIRO had identified.

KIRO didn’t respond to my messages seeking comment. But one thing struck me as I watched this map evolve, and read KIRO’s ever-changing justifications for its existence: To think a map like this serves any useful purpose, you have to see homeless people and their tents as messes to clean up or problems to be solved. Then the map becomes a kind of “Find It, Fix It” app, but for people.

But people aren’t potholes, and identifying their precise locations—especially in Seattle, a city where anti-homeless sentiment is at a fever pitch right now—can put them in danger.  In the same way that it would be considered inappropriate to create a map identifying where KIRO employees live, it’s inappropriate to create a map of where homeless people are sleeping and trying to survive. I’m glad, for the sake of the people who could have been targeted because KIRO identified where they lived, that KIRO took the original map down. I’m disheartened that the only lesson KIRO appears to have learned is “when you fuck up, double down.”

2. In case you missed it: Yesterday, I broke the news that the city, county, and state have settled with the Alliance for Pioneer Square, which sued over the width of the proposed new Alaskan Way surface street. Under the agreement, the city will build the street as originally planned—102 feet wide, similar to the new Mercer Street in South Lake Union—and narrow it to 79 feet, by eliminating two transit lanes, around 2033, when light rail opens in West Seattle.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s