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Sharp disagreements over homeless sweeps, policing in South Seattle City Council race

caption: Tanya Woo, left, and Tammy Morales Oct. 6, 2023 at KUOW in Seattle.
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Tanya Woo, left, and Tammy Morales Oct. 6, 2023 at KUOW in Seattle.
Juan Pablo Chiquiza

City Councilmember Tammy Morales and her challenger Tanya Woo sometimes agree on how to tackle the biggest problems Seattle voters are talking about this year, including crime, drugs, and homelessness.

But more often, the two disagree — and that political tension was on full display at a recent live candidate debate at KUOW.

Tanya Woo got into the race as a community activist. She led opposition last year, for example, to a King County plan to expand a 275-bed homeless shelter in Seattle's SODO neighborhood near the Chinatown-International District.

“This follows a long line of high-impact projects being brought onto the community without community outreach or engagement, including five stadiums. We were like enough is enough,” Woo said during KUOW's debate event.

Woo's campaign is trying to tap into the frustration of some South Seattle residents who feel left out of the decision-making process by area leaders, including their current District 2 representative, Tammy Morales.

At KUOW, Morales said she agreed with Woo that the community “had not been engaged” sufficiently, but that she disagreed with Woo about scrapping the expansion of the shelter in the Chinatown-International District.

“We have almost 50,000 homeless people in King County. We only have about 6,000 shelter beds,” Morales said.

Morales also said she’s opposed to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s approach to removing homeless encampments and RVs.

“If we really want to solve this homelessness problem, then we need to get serious about investing in short-term solutions that can help move people off the streets, like tiny house villages, like RV safe lots,” Morales said.

Even in cases where violent crimes have been committed inside encampments, Morales said sweeps are not the answer.

“If there is somebody who is committing an act of violence, then that individual needs to be arrested, but the rest of the community is not guilty of that crime,” Morales said.

On the other side of the debate, Woo said she supports Harrell’s sweeps.

“We have to have a proactive approach. We just cannot wait for someone to die there or for horrendous crimes to happen,” Woo said.

The two also skirmished over “no-notice sweeps.”

At first Woo seemed skeptical that "no-notice sweeps" are occurring frequently. She also said, “sweeping an encampment is very different from someone who has set up a tent on the sidewalk. I think that's a totally different situation."

Encampments are often swept without notice when the city says there’s an “obstruction” — picture a tent blocking a sidewalk, for example. But a judge recently ruled that Seattle’s definition of “obstruction” is too broad, with some encampments being removed when they aren’t really obstructing anyone or anything.

“It is happening far too frequently and people lose access to their social workers, they lose access to services, they lose their belongings, they are re-traumatized,” Morales said.

Crime and public safety are also hot-button issues in the race, with Woo supporting a new city ordinance making public drug use and possession prosecutable under Seattle law. Morales voted against it.

RELATED: Newly signed drug law gets mixed reviews among Seattleites

There was also some heated back-and-forth after Woo accused Morales of voting to “defund the police.”

"That is not true,” Morales interjected.

“I don’t remember the exact name or number of the ordinance, but I implore people to please check the record,” Woo said.

Councilmember Morales did vote for a non-binding resolution inspired by the police defund movement in August of 2020.

One line in the measure called for funding “a community led process to create a roadmap to life without policing.” And an attachment said, in part, “The goal of these processes is not only to defund the police, but to create a new paradigm for how the city distributes its funding and invests in community.”

However, a resolution is not a law, and the council never fully followed up on it. The police budget was never cut by anything close to the “50%” that some activists called for at the time — and which Morales said elsewhere that she supported.

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