It has been over nine months since Mayor Ed Murray declared a “state of civil emergency” in response to an alarming, and growing, number of people living on Seattle’s streets. While we’ve not seen Red Cross tents across the courthouse lawn as we would in the aftermath of a natural catastrophe, there has been plenty to conjure the image of a disaster area, with new makeshift camps popping up around the city every day.
Murray has threaded the needle between competing constituencies, expending considerable political capital to support newly sanctioned encampments in city neighborhoods while at the same time aggressively sweeping others away. But following revelations last week from the Seattle Times that the sweeps were characterized by miscommunications and chaos, Murray pledged to look more closely at how people are moved out of homeless encampments.
The phrase “do no harm” is one that enters policy discussions more and more these days. When I used it in a recent conversation about the encampment sweeps, an elected official literally began to weep, clearly sensing that, as a city, we might not be living up to this basic maxim.
Both the mayor’s office and King County’s All Home (formerly the Committee to End Homelessness) are awaiting reports from nationally recognized consultants with recommendations for modifying the community’s network of housing and social services. It remains to be seen what kind of road these good intentions will pave, but no amount of fine-tuning of social services can overcome the loss, in recent decades, of most of the city’s market-rate low-income housing stock.
Seattle has had the fastest increasing rents of any U.S. city over the past four years, up by about $500 a month on average over that time period. Research demonstrates that for each $100 increase in average monthly rent, cities can expect a 15 percent increase in homelessness. Bearing this out, King County’s annual street count of people experiencing homelessness has increased by 74 percent over the past four years.
And our community hasn’t exhausted its capacity to create more homeless people. The King County Housing Authority opened its Section 8 list last year in a lottery that brought 22,000 applications for 2,500 slots. The current draft of the city’s Comprehensive Plan shows a shortage of over 10,000 housing units (either subsidized or on the open market) that are affordable to those making less than 30 percent of local median income.
“If we believe that there is a housing shortage and a homeless crisis now, just wait,” says Seattle Displacement Coalition Coordinator John Fox. “We haven’t seen nothin’ yet.”
So what do we do?
First, we must respond to the immediate emergency, which is becoming more serious by the day. But reaching for real solutions will mean asking hard questions about what kind of community we want to be.
In responding to the immediate emergency, both the city and county have made significant advances this year:
· The city has made $5 million in new investments, with plans for an innovative “navigation center” to open in the coming months;
· The county recently released a $4.6 million request for proposals for emergency shelter and transitional (time-limited) and rapid re-housing programs;
· Voters approved Seattle’s largest ever housing levy, by a margin of more than two to one, committing $290 million over seven years;
· The county council just approved a renewal of the MIDD, a 0.1 percent Mental Illness and Drug Dependency sales tax set to expire at the end of this year, providing a crucial $50 million infusion of resources in a state that ranks 47th in mental health services;
· The city council, despite developer opposition, recently amended the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability (HALA) agenda to include additional assistance for areas facing high risk of displacement.
And there is more to come, packaged in the consultants’ reports, which are due any day now. All Home Director Mark Putnam, who is charged with implementing the recommended changes in the county, likens it to the baseball stats-whiz movie Money Ball, “using advanced analytics to get an advantage.”
For example, they’ve been able to analyze the “per-positive-outcome cost” for programs that help people move from various shelters and transitional housing programs into permanent housing. The results ranged from about $100 on average to $150,000. The hope is that prioritizing programs that deliver more timely results will provide better stewardship of limited funds and ultimately house more people.
Both the mayor’s and All Home’s consultants are expected to recommend putting a greater emphasis on moving people quickly into permanent housing, with fewer resources going to transitional programs, and greater scrutiny of the effectiveness of emergency services like shelters.
“People are getting stuck in shelter,” Putnam says, noting that 25 percent of shelter users account for 75 percent of “bednights.” If those 25 percent can obtain housing, he says, “you’ve freed up all those bednights for the next person coming through.”
It’s hard to argue against creating greater efficiency for a social service system that struggles to provide even a basic level of emergency services for the growing number of people in desperate need. But providers are genuinely concerned about how changes from on high can impact the delicate balance of services for people experiencing homelessness.
To cite just one example, recovery-based transitional housing for people with substance abuse issues can serve three times as many people per year than a permanent housing program, and provide a community of support to help make the shift from a struggle with addiction to a life in recovery. But this is exactly the kind of program that will be facing scrutiny.
And Putnam acknowledges that shelter is “the linchpin of our crisis response system. Until we have a more efficient system, I don’t see us being able to reduce shelter.”
To move beyond the management of this crisis, the community must find the political will to dream bigger, to make the preservation of affordable housing a higher priority and to invest what’s needed to replace the housing that has been lost. That has so far proven to be easier said than done.
The seed of King County’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness was planted at a conference in 2001 at St. Mark’s Cathedral called Creating the Political Will to End Homelessness. That plan’s deadline has come and gone, of course, but the program continues as an initiative of the county government. And the conference has become an annual event, organized by the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness. If they decide to go ahead with it once again this year, it will be Political Will XVI.
After all this time, there is weariness among advocates about whether it is even possible to generate the political will to provide housing for all of our residents. Many of those I interviewed for this series questioned whether we, as a people, are actually losing our capacity to care about this issue.
Heather Barr, who has been a public health nurse in Seattle for over three decades, remembers being asked in the early ’90s to help develop a “man down” protocol for emergency responders, as finding people unconscious on the street was becoming a common occurrence.
“There was this concern about people laying down outside, and that we would have a response to that,” Barr remembers. “Now it’s just like so many people sleeping on the ground all day long and nobody’s upset about it in any particular way. They may be upset, like it’s unsightly, but not upset that ‘wow, this shouldn’t be happening.’”
Rev. Rick Reynolds recently reminisced with me about prior decades, when he would routinely receive late-night calls from bartenders to come talk to a troubled patron, or from a SRO (hotel) manager worried about a kid who had wandered into the lobby. “That kind of stuff happened a lot,” he says. “Even the merchants used to care about people in a different way than they do now.”
The compassion fatigue can be palpable, as my wife and I encountered a few weeks ago while helping an injured man at Pike Place Market, a location that used to be much more welcoming (or at least accepting) of folks who might be homeless. On this day, we were barely able to grudgingly get a couple of paper towels to wipe up the blood and a suggestion that we “might want to call someone.”
I can only imagine how many more times a day shopkeepers encounter such scenes than they did when they opened their businesses 30 years ago.
But people still do care. For every story of a fed-up business owner using a garden hose to soak the inside of a tent, I can show you one of a restaurant carefully packaging its leftovers and leaving them out where those in need can easily access the food.
The problem for many Seattleites seems to be that they don’t know where to put their concern.
Local architect Rex Hohlbein has one answer to that dilemma. Hohlbein became inspired to act after moving his office from the suburbs to the Fremont neighborhood, where he began to encounter homeless people.
“I lived my whole life here, I care about this city,” Hohlbein says. “I was always courteous, always smiled. I would go grab a coffee for someone when I saw them outside every once in a while. But by no means did I internalize any of it. I completely was oblivious to it.”
At first, he began visiting with folks when he would take his lunch on the benches along the ship canal. Soon, he was inviting them to his office to get warm, use the bathroom, have a cup of coffee.
One of these was a man named Chiaka, who sold his paintings on the street. Hohlbein cleared out his storage shed to get Chiaka’s paintings out of the rain, and invited him to sleep in the shed. He then created a Facebook page to feature the paintings for sale.
A few months later, he received a message from Pittsburgh: “Oh my God, I think I just found my dad.” Chiaka is now reunited with his family after ten years of living on the streets.
For Hohlbein, it was the culmination of “little increments” of change. “All of a sudden I went, wow, I have to walk away from architecture practice. I can’t do this anymore,” he says.
He started a nonprofit, now called Facing Homelessness, and spends his days doing street outreach, photographing and telling the stories of those he meets on the street, raising money to help meet their basic needs.
He and his co-workers Sarah Steilen and Sara Vander Zanden pass out socks and sleeping bags through their office window to those who knock from the alley outside. Using a Facebook page with over 37,000 followers in 45 different countries, they have raised money to help over 500 individuals do things like pay a tow charge to retrieve the vehicle they’ve been living in, or make a deposit on an apartment.
This back-to-basics approach has struck a chord with thousands of Seattleites, and other social media platforms are springing up to engage the broader community in similar ways: We Count recently launched a website that invites homeless people to ask for what they need — tents and backpacks, for example — and other community members to meet those needs. GoFund Me campaigns to raise money to keep people housed are becoming more and more common.
These efforts have led to hundreds of real human connections, and hundreds of people helped.
The result of all of these efforts is a kind of ad hoc community of first responders for the increasing numbers slipping through the gaping holes in the social safety net. But can this kind of one-person-at-a-time evolution translate into societal change?
Few cities have had as much effective activism around housing and homelessness as Seattle. As we saw in part 2 of this series, direct actions have saved hundreds of units of low-income housing in the downtown core, SHARE/WHEEL’s community organizing model has created some of the most successful and longest lasting tent cities in the country, and advocacy groups like the Displacement Coalition have been pushing a preservation agenda for four decades.
Yet development and displacement have marched relentlessly forward, and on the national level, there has been no strong push for a return to the massive sustained investment in public housing that would be required to solve the crisis.
What we needed was a social movement but what we got is an industry, what some critics call the “homeless industrial complex.” The current nomenclature is to describe those utilizing social services as “consumers” (All Home even has a Consumer Advisory Council). Inevitably, “the Homeless” become an ever expanding problem population to control.
Without this industry, we would see immensely more suffering on our streets, but in ceding our caring to this network of government and nonprofits, we lose our connection and sense of responsibility to those suffering around us.
I asked Rex Hohlbein if Facing Homelessness can help to create the political will to fund the housing and services needed to solve the current crisis. While he agreed that “we have to have people fighting for more housing, we have to fight for more shelter,” from his vantage point “there’s not even a place” for his organization to act as a catalyst for political change in the current environment where NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) voices are often the loudest in the room.
“Maybe this is the architect in me,” he mused, but “why are we building all this stuff on top of something that’s not ready for it?” Until we’ve built the foundation — a compassionate community that embraces those for whom all these services have been created — “we’re not on firm bearing here,” he said.
Seattle, with its long history of activism and progressive politics, is as apt as any major city to lead on this issue. And homelessness provides a lens through which to make connections between various movements for social justice: Seattle’s neighborhoods’ resistance to unbridled development; Black Lives Matter’s damning indictment of racial injustice and a ready willingness to take that to the streets; lgbtq activists who know firsthand the experience of being driven away from their own homes as youth; Greens who see a similar moral bankruptcy in the rampant materialism that destroys both the environment and our social fabric; a new generation of young progressives inspired by the first presidential campaign they could believe in.
The synergy of different communities of concern coming together to find common cause helped lead to a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Seattle. Can we bring that energy to bear on homelessness?
If we could, then we’d have a real chance to do what is needed:
· Strict preservation rules for what’s left of our local stock of low-income housing;
· Community mental health programs robust enough to deal with the present need;
· Treatment on demand for those struggling with chemical dependency;
· Lead a movement to win massive federal spending on subsidized housing.
But it starts with each and every one of us, and our ability to join together in community.
Late last year, when the United We Stand encampment was reaching the end of its stay at a Shoreline church without a place to go next, Brad and Kim Lancaster, who could see the camp from their law office, decided that they would invite the camp to use their backyard for a few months.
Soon the Lancasters’ tiny yard was filled with tents accommodating ten campers, while a family with four children moved into their 770-square-foot house with them. Everyone used their one bathroom and kitchen. And in the midst of all that frenetic activity, Kim Lancaster told KUOW radio in an interview, “I’ve been a happier human being since the camp moved in.”
“Something happened to me” in those early weeks, she told me recently. “Just all these little things, that’s the happiness factor … being able to give so little and have it be so much to the person that’s receiving it.”
In this light, the homeless state of emergency brings to mind the literature about disasters, and what it says about community. Sebastian Junger writes in his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, “One way to determine what is missing in day-to-day American life may be to examine what behaviors spontaneously arise when that life is disrupted.”
Rebecca Solnit, in A Paradise Built in Hell, says: “Disaster reveals what else the world could be. … It reveals mutual aid as a default operating principle and civil society as something waiting in the wings when it’s absent from the stage.”
Perhaps this provides a clue about how movements get started. The mayor’s consultant, Barbara Poppe, has called tent encampments “a real distraction from investing in solutions.” It’s a sentiment shared by many policymakers. But could it be that they’re missing where the demand for change ultimately comes from? It can come from starting to do what you do when there’s been a disaster: You start by addressing the immediate conditions in solidarity with those who are suffering, and then you seek the resources to rebuild.
Supporting immediate grassroots efforts like tent cities and tiny house villages doesn’t mean accepting them as a model for the city of the future, as many of their supporters make clear. Ultimately, “they are segregation,” Hohlbein says. “They are putting everyone who is suffering in a spot out of sight out of mind.”
Or, as John Fox characterizes tiny house villages: “institutionalizing second tier housing for the poor.”
Point well taken, but what do you do in the middle of an emergency? Where do you start? Offer someone your spare bedroom? Make space for a tent in your backyard? Or as Hohlbein suggests, start with just saying hello.
It’s impossible to predict what precipitating events can tip the balance when momentum builds for change (remember Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring?). In the meantime we can each do what we can, in our own small way, to make a difference for those in need: Share our time and treasure with nonprofits that are working to alleviate the suffering and bring about social change; make the call for housing and services heard at the ballot box; get to know people on the street and look for ways to help; think about what happens to the social fabric of a community when it takes an $80,000 income to afford an average one-bedroom apartment, and talk to our neighbors about that (better yet, participate in a public forum).
“The issue is so overwhelming,” Hohlbein says, but everyone can start by “find(ing) their simple little entry point to begin their journey.” As to how that becomes a demand for broader change, Hohlbein describes it as “building a slow fire and letting it grow.
“Just start thinking about it,” he says. “Start opening up to human beings and see how that feels, and we’ll go from there.”
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.
This series made possible with support from Northwest Harvest. The views and opinions expressed in the media, articles, or comments on this article are those of the authors and do not reflect or represent the views and opinions held by Northwest Harvest.
*Credit for lead image: Robert Geffert