The following is an open letter to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and the Board of Park Commisioners from Low Income Housing Institute executive director Sharon Lee regarding the proposed ban on smoking in public parks. Seattle Parks and Recreation is receiving public comment on its proposed smoking ban through May 7.
Dear Mayor Murray and Board of Commissioners,
While the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) is a fervent supporter of public health, the ban on smoking in parks is a classic overreach and an offense to social justice. There are already provisions that make it illegal to smoke in the park within 25 feet of a playground or other patrons. This more comprehensive ban appears to target populations that have few other places to go. The Commission admitted that the park rangers are not enforcing the current bans and that this new ban will disproportionately affect homeless populations.
The fact that this ban makes exceptions for vape pens and e-cigarettes (items that are significantly more expensive than a pack of standard cigarettes and are so new they have unknown second-hand health effects) shows that this ban is meant to target the poor and homeless that frequent the city parks.
Seattle Park’s staff have also admitted that this new rule, which can result in tickets, fines and permanent removal from the park, will disproportionately affect people currently experiencing homelessness. Although, “homelessness” is not a protected class, open discrimination is also not in line with Seattle’s values. Further, homelessness affects the disabled, seniors, people of color, and veterans, all of which are protected classes that should not be systematically removed from our parks.
People of color are significantly over-represented among the homeless population. The Parks Commission’s decision should be guided by the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI). You should not adopt policies that further compound the problems facing homeless men and women of color who are desperately trying to survive on the streets of Seattle.
We ask that Mayor Murray and the Commissioners not permit this ban to take effect and instead find other ways to promote health and safety by, for example, providing more affordable housing to end homelessness in our region.
Instead of adding more fines or banning to people who are homeless, the Mayor and Parks Commission should be proactive and implement the recommendations from the Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness. Their report calls for emergency and temporary overnight shelters in city-owned buildings include Parks facilities. Other mayors throughout the country have successfully reduced the number of unsheltered homeless families and individuals on the streets by setting up winter warming centers, short term severe weather shelters, and use of community centers during off hours to help people in need.
LIHI supports the Mayor’s call for 20,000 new rent-restricted affordable housing units within the next 10 years. We ask that you dedicate 5,000 of these units to address the homelessness crisis by providing permanent rental housing linked with services for homeless families, veterans, seniors and disabled individuals.
Sharon H. Lee
LIHI Executive Director