This is the first in a three-part series about the region’s homelessness crisis. Read part two here.
In the middle of the night on March 20, 1970, an arsonist set fire to stairwells at either end of the Ozark Hotel on Seattle’s Westlake Avenue. When it was over, 20 people lay dead, mostly those who had been living on the upper floors of the five-story wooden building. Another victim died later in the hospital. It was the deadliest fire in Seattle history.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, the Seattle City Council enacted the Ozark Ordinance, restricting occupancy of buildings without adequate fire escapes and sprinklers. A year later, the Seventh Avenue Hotel burned, killing 12, and the council passed more restrictions, leading to the abandonment of some hotels and the closing of the upper floors of others.
It marked a turning point in the city’s ability to provide housing for its low-income residents, many of whom lived in rooming houses and SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotels in the area. Those buildings had been disappearing over the previous decade but the pace now accelerated.
The Ozark fire stands out as a moment when it became clear that the writing was on the wall for the area that introduced to the American lexicon the term Skid Row. (Yesler Way, which came to serve as a rough demarcation of downtown from where “the other half” lived, was for years known as the “Skid Road” for the logs that were “skidded” down the hill to Henry Yesler’s waterfront mill.)
The Skid Road that had for generations provided affordable housing and community amenities in close proximity to the kind of jobs available to the working men and women who lived there was on its way out, and neither the market nor government policy makers would provide the incentive to preserve and rehabilitate it.
Little did we know that it would bring us to the current state of affairs, where we now count those sleeping on our streets in the thousands, while to this day, there are buildings in the International District where noncompliant upper floors have sat vacant and unused for over 40 years.
There have certainly been periods in Seattle’s past when the struggle for housing reached crisis proportions. Hooverville, occupying the tide flats south of downtown, housed over 1,200 men (and a handful of women) at the height of the Great Depression. The Hotel de Gink provided shelter for even more in the World War I era, a time when the papers were peppered with stories about late-night raids of the Salvation Army headquarters by men desperate for winter coats, and women “compelled to seek shelter under a bridge at night.”
During the post-World War II economic boom, when Boeing’s employment rolls swelled above 100,000 in the city, there were also enough downtown jobs and day labor offices in close proximity to the Skid Road to support a vibrant SRO culture and, even as the number of lodging rooms declined throughout the 1960s, sufficient housing was still available (with the Christian missions helping to meet the needs of the truly destitute).
But the Boeing Bust hit at about the same time as the hotel fires, and from 1970 through 1971, over half its workforce was laid off. Nine days before the Seventh Avenue Hotel fire, the city’s most famous billboard made its first appearance: “Will the last person leaving SEATTLE – Turn out the lights.”
Through all this, the redevelopment of the downtown core marched relentlessly forward. A successful World’s Fair was followed by the construction of Seattle’s freeway and then the Kingdome, which sealed the fate of many of the SROs. And as the economy recovered, the Skid Road became ripe for lucrative development. As was the case in other large American cities, SROs and flophouses where low-wage workers could live close to their jobs and communities of support gave way to rapid growth in office space and federally funded urban renewal that didn’t often result in replacing that lost housing.
The new fire codes helped seal the deal. As Joe Martin, a social worker who has been working downtown for the past four decades, told me some years back: “It allowed people who might have had ulterior motives to cloak themselves in the gown of morality and to express concern for the safety of people living in sub-standard housing … [in order to] expedite getting the folks out of there and knocking these buildings down so you could capitalize on the property.”
From 1970 to ’71, 40 hotels and other residential buildings, mostly in the Skid Road area, were closed and another 21 were demolished, eliminating a total of 3,264 units of low-income housing. In a 1983 inventory completed as part of the environmental impact statement prepared for the city’s downtown revitalization plan, it was estimated that between 1960 and 1980, 15,622 housing units were lost in an area comprising downtown, South Lake Union and First Hill. Of the 13,093 units that remained in the downtown area in 1982, nearly 4,000 sat vacant and only 7,311 were affordable for low-income residents.
Writer and entrepreneur Bill Speidel, who created Seattle’s Underground Tour and was instrumental in the redevelopment of Pioneer Square, noted presciently to the Seattle Times in 1972, “We had to make a choice somewhere, back two or three years ago: Are we going to go commercial, or are we going to try to have a social conscience? So we’ve gone for free enterprise. Bag the social plan.”
In the midst of these changes, Northern State Hospital, which had housed over 2,000 psychiatric patients at one time, closed, and there was a significant reduction in the number of halfway houses and residential care facilities for those struggling with mental health challenges. Together, they brought a flood of new arrivals downtown. Joe Martin remembers, “One Skid Road guy asked me: ‘Where are all the nuts coming from?’”
In a 1977 report written for the mental health task force of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, Martin observed that “this lack of transitional and halfway facilities results in disoriented people out on the streets. They have no friends, no home, no treatment, nothing.”
Or as Rev. Steve Burger of Union Gospel Mission put it to him, “Sometimes I think ‘community treatment’ means dump them on Skid Road.”
Deinstitutionalization happened in several waves, beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the Reagan years, when increasingly desperate mentally ill individuals were being released to the community. The existing stock of SROs at first accommodated many of them, but as more and more people competed for less and less available housing, the most vulnerable found their way to the street.
Seattle Displacement Coalition Coordinator John Fox, the city’s most tenacious housing activist for over 40 years, remembers that even in the late ’70s there was “still an adequate supply” of SRO rooms available, places where for a couple of dollars a night, a person could have a room with a shared bath down the hall.
“There was no need for social services and shelters … It was organic, they relied on their own community” he says, noting the local network of restaurants, bars, pool halls, and grocery stores that used to be common in the district. Without that, day laborers, retirees, and these new arrivals didn’t have an option.
During the latter half of the ‘70s, as the housing crisis grew more dire, community groups such as the Displacement Coalition and the Seattle Tenant’s Union organized. Legislative efforts to stem the tide of development, preserve affordable housing, and require developers to help pay for what was being lost either failed, were struck down or not enforced, or simply not enough to have a meaningful impact on what was happening.
At first, discussions centered around the threat of “displacement,” but within a few years, as more and more people were visibly sleeping on the streets, alarmed policy makers and pundits were using a new term to describe those who had been affected: “the homeless.”
“I was around during ’75 to ’80 and no one used the term ‘homeless,’” says Fox. (Prior to that time, “homeless” in the research literature generally referred to men without families living alone in rooming houses and SROs.) But while there were times of economic crisis in the past when the haunting sight of people sleeping outside without shelter pricked at the conscience of the community, it was now becoming a permanent fixture of the urban landscape. “By the mid ’80s,” Fox says, “we’d defined the problem as ‘homelessness.’”
In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration oversaw the gutting of public housing, with draconian cuts to HUD subsidies, as well as the final wave of deinstitutionalization, which by then meant turning out on the street profoundly mentally ill folks. By the mid-’80s it was a full-fledged crisis. It was morning in America, but the shelters kicked you out at 7 a.m.
In his report to the Church Council, Joe Martin ruefully observed that at Harborview Hospital, the region’s major trauma center: “In the logs of the ER workers there is an abbreviation ‘pls’ next to some of the names. The letters stand for ‘poor lost soul’ and the term indicates an individual who will come to the ER for help but who doesn’t seem to have any niche whatsoever in the society.”
Lynn Holland, a Harborview social worker, told Martin, “At one time, I was able to send people to a congregate care facility right from the ER ... Now the most you do half the time is patch them up as best you can and send them on their way.”
During the mid-’80s, as it became increasingly clear that this disaster wasn’t going away, Mayor Charlie Royer convened a task force on homelessness, and the system of triage that evolved into today’s vast array of social services and shelters began to emerge. Still, all the public housing we’ve created since then has not been able to keep pace with what continues to be lost.
Much of what occurred in Seattle was the result of national housing policy and broad social forces at work throughout the country, resulting in the erosion of wages and a narrowing of housing options for those who couldn’t afford new upscale development. But Seattle was hit particularly hard and, in John Fox’s view, “There were conscious decisions by local elected officials during this era to promote development at the expense of those living there.”
It was a slow-motion disaster we watched unfold over many years. Any way you cut it, we created this situation, all in the name of progress. So now we reap the whirlwind.
Next, we look at the official response to the homelessness crisis — and the non-official response as well here.
Sinan Demirel has been executive director of Rising Out of the Shadows (ROOTS), home to a popular all-ages feeding program and emergency shelter for young adults, and of Elizabeth Gregory Home, a homeless women’s day center and transitional housing program. He has also served as co-chair of both the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness and the Seattle-King County Healthcare for the Homeless Planning Council. He is currently working on a book tentatively called Homeless in Seattle: A Local History of a National Tragedy.