May 23, 2022 - News

Hot seat: Seattle Mayor defends approach to homelessness

Photo illustration of Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell in an instant photo pinned to a red wall.
Photo Illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Lewis Kamb

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell says he's growing "tired" of criticism and questions about his approach to removing tent encampments and that his administration isn't getting enough credit for its work addressing the city's homelessness problem.

  • "At some point, when will the city recognize — because many people do — we are doing outstanding work?” Harrell asked. " … But I have to spend countless hours on interviews like this, where people are questioning this or questioning that."

Driving the news: Harrell made the comments during a wide-ranging interview with Axios this month in which he also talked about picking a permanent police chief; whether he'll request an investigation into former Mayor Jenny Durkan's deleted text messages; and efforts to bring the NBA back to Seattle.

  • Axios Seattle's discussion with Harrell — the first of its "Hot Seat" interviews with local newsmakers — took place two days after city crews removed a sprawling tent encampment at Woodland Park.

What they're saying: Harrell said that city crews spent months getting to know the personal needs of those living in Woodland Park and offered shelter and other services to them before clearing the encampment.

  • "That kind of work does not get a lot of attention. No one is writing about that."
  • The week after his interview with Axios, Harrell joined outreach officials in Woodland Park for a press conference touting the operation's success, noting the 89 people connected to shelters were "the most referrals from any encampment removal in our city's history."

Why it matters: With Harrell now more than five months into his term, the reality of how he will — or won't — deal with some of the city's issues is taking shape, giving the public a better sense for how he'll lead over the next three and a half years.

Between the lines: Homeless camp removals remain controversial in Seattle, with some critics viewing the "sweeps" as a way to push the problem out of sight without addressing root issues.

The other side: Harrell insists his approach to a crisis decades in the making has been compassionate but firm.

  • "I don't think there's a way to go about this kind of work that pleases everybody," Harrell said. "But if there is the best approach, I think we've taken that, which is looking at long-term solutions, sheltering people and then returning our sidewalks and parks to a safe condition."

Yes, but: "Quite candidly, and I say this without apology, I am not fighting for someone's rights to live in a tent on the sidewalk," Harrell added.

Hot seat speed round

Axios asked Harrell to weigh in other major issues defining his first few months in office.

On his assessment of Adrian Diaz as interim police chief: "I consider him a friend and think he should be commended for his public service," Harrell said. But, he added Diaz would be objectively "evaluated in the context of other applicants" amid a national search for a permanent police chief.

On the city's approach to targeting "hot spots" for crime: "I think we're making great progress on our strategies, and it's evolving work. So I'm trying to get our police numbers up … We are down around the 900 level and I'd like that number to be closer to 1,400."

On whether he'll pursue an investigation into the deleted text messages of former Mayor Durkan and other city officials: "It's not the mayor's job to be the prodder of multiple investigations," he said, adding it's up to the city attorney or AG's office to decide.

On whether the NBA will return to Seattle: "Everything we can do right now to facilitate getting a team back we are doing. … I feel very optimistic."

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