This is the second in a three-part series about the region’s homelessness crisis. Read part 1 here.
In a culmination of three decades of perpetual crisis, Seattle late last year joined other West Coast cities in proclaiming that homelessness had reached a state of emergency. In January, Mayor Ed Murray followed with a major address in which he repeatedly referred to the city’s complex human service network as “broken.”
The numbers certainly suggest that something is terribly wrong. In 2000, the annual count of people sleeping on Seattle’s streets, organized by the region’s homeless coalition, surpassed 1,000 for the first time. This year, it was just shy of 3,000 in the city, and countywide it was an astonishing 4,505. This doesn’t include those who managed to conceal themselves from counting in abandoned buildings, deep in the woods or wherever else they could hide.
The total homeless count — including those staying in shelters and short-term housing programs — exceeded 10,000 for the first time last year, giving King County the third highest homeless population of any U.S. metropolitan area. Only New York City and Los Angeles had more.
Beleaguered social service providers operate in constant crisis mode. Notoriously underpaid staff working in arduous conditions struggle with post-traumatic stress from the “secondary trauma” of reckoning with the suffering all around them.
Nine months before Murray’s speech, the city’s Human Services department had committed to a “Roadmap for Re-vamping Homeless Investments” to reprogram the over $40 million it spends annually, through nearly 200 separate contracts with 60 different agencies, for shelter and housing, meal programs and support services, prevention and rental assistance, outreach and case management, day centers and hygiene facilities serving single adults, families, youth and seniors.
But this wasn’t the first attempt to restructure the social services world. In fact, to one degree or another, a similar exercise has been repeated by every administration since Mayor Charles Royer’s taskforce on homelessness found existing programs to be “overwhelmed” in their “limited ability to expand services” and meet an ever-growing need. That was in 1986.
In a grim illustration of how dire it can get out there, just minutes before the mayor was talking about Seattle’s “broken” system, two people were killed and three critically injured in a mass shooting in a meandering collection of encampments known for decades as the Jungle. Rushing from his speech to the scene of the shooting, the mayor worried out loud: “I can’t help but wonder, did I act too late?”
What exactly is “broken” here? And why has it resisted our best attempts to fix it?
I spoke recently with a longtime community organizer who believes that the mayor is genuinely anguishing about the crisis. She notes that Murray had “a strong and steady hand” during contentious public meetings about city-sanctioned camps, and visited the Jungle as no mayor before him ever did, even as he has presided over a crackdown on unauthorized homeless encampments.
But the organizer, who asked to speak anonymously, shook her head at the notion that what needs fixing is the social services: “As if we who’ve been doing this work for decades somehow got this wrong in our approach, (when, in fact, we’re doing) … the best we can to save people from a cruel and harsh economic world we created and keep supporting.”
As we reminisced about doing outreach together in the Jungle ourselves almost two decades ago, when another mayor was threatening to sweep the area, she reflected on Murray’s January speech. Recalling his quotation from Dorothy Day, she wondered if another might have been even more apropos:
“Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”
A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to becoming America’s Most Livable City. In the years between 1975, when Harper’s first gave Seattle that title, and 1989, when Places Rated Almanac did the same, the loss of low-income housing in the area along the old Skid Road, south of downtown, reached a crisis point. (I wrote about this in greater detail in the first piece in this series.) For the first time since the Great Depression, large numbers of people were visibly sleeping on the streets.
Organizations already providing social services on Skid Road mobilized to address the growing need. The Christian missions, which had provided sufficient numbers of emergency beds for decades, were no longer enough. First Avenue Service Center began offering a few shelter “beds” in the form of hard chairs so they could fit more people in their limited space. Soon the first mass shelters opened: the Downtown Emergency Service Center in 1979, followed by St. Martin de Porres in 1984.
Rev. Rick Reynolds began serving the Skid Road community almost four decades ago. In 1981, he worked the graveyard shift in the kitchen at the jail downtown. As he’d walk through the Public Safety Building just before 3 a.m., he often saw a woman sleeping in the lobby. “She was notorious,” he says. “People were concerned about this woman.”
Just a little over a decade later, he was directing Operation Nightwatch, which helped provide 50 shelter beds each night in that same space.
The problem has only gotten worse, of course. When Reynolds reported for work at Operation Nightwatch in 1994, his predecessor told him, “You’re the executive director, here’s your mop.” During his tenure there, Reynolds said, “Nightwatch went from simply topping off the existing shelter network, to doing winter response shelter in concert with another organization, to keeping that open every night, because we needed it every night, to 103 beds, privately funded.
“It was supposed to be an overflow situation, and now it’s just another component in this whole array of services that are still inadequate,” he says. “And we still need an overflow site!”
Nightwatch also provides permanent housing for low-income seniors and operates a dispatch center, offering meals and helping to locate available shelter beds in the city for those who come to their door each night, serving as a crucial hub in the nexus of emergency services that now includes over 3,000 “beds” (mostly mats on the floor) in over 50 different shelters.
The official response has been only part of the picture. Frustrated with the city’s inability to stop the decline of its low-income housing stock, some have taken to direct action. As the extent of the crisis began to become clear in the late ’80s, a new generation of activists took matters into their own hands and began to occupy vacant dwellings.
“They’d research a building, see how long it had been vacant,” recalls longtime housing activist John Fox. “If the owner was absentee, hadn’t been around in a while … they just acted as if they owned it. They would just move in and … meet the neighbors and turn on the electricity and bring in the phone company.”
Some of these same activists helped form Operation Homestead, which embarked upon a series of highly visible occupations of old residential buildings in the city center, ultimately resulting in the saving of hundreds of units of low-income housing.
Another grassroots organization, SHARE, emerged in 1990 with Seattle’s first organized tent city. Over time, with its partner organization WHEEL, it became the city’s largest shelter provider, its self-managed emergency shelters in churches throughout the city offering the service at a small fraction of what it cost more conventional providers. As the number of people on the streets increased even more in the early 2000s, SHARE established new tent cities that continue to operate in Seattle and King County.
The city’s official response to homelessness has included tough-minded crackdowns as well as more compassionate approaches.
In the ’90s, City Attorney Mark Sidran aggressively pursued measures designed to limit panhandling, access to parks and sitting on sidewalks. He ultimately lost a bid for mayor in part because his targeting of homeless people felt too mean for Seattle Nice. But the man who defeated him, Greg Nickels, continued on a similar tack and eventually joined Herbert Hoover in becoming the namesake of a local homeless camp.
On the other hand, the city has made impressive investments to address homelessness. Additional funds added since the declaration of the state of emergency bring total annual spending (which includes federal and state pass-through dollars) to nearly $50 million, about double what it was a decade ago — which was more than triple what it was a decade before that.
Some of the work has been truly innovative: Housing First models which are just the help that’s needed in many cases; the award-winning 1811 Eastlake housing program that follows a harm-reduction model, allowing residents to drink on site; diversion programs like the county’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) and Drug Diversion Court, which approach substance abuse as more of a public health issue than a law enforcement one; the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, which has focused attention on disparities in who experiences homelessness.
A current effort occupying the attention of policy makers is Coordinated Entry for All, a new regional intake system that will funnel those seeking services through one of five Regional Access Points. And we are now on at least the third attempt in the past 15 years to retool an HMIS (Homeless Management Information System) to provide the minimal data needed to facilitate effective coordination of services.
King County has been a leader in promoting such innovations through its Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. Although that plan, launched in 2004, obviously failed to accomplish its stated goal, it did aid in the creation of thousands of units of low-income housing. (The quarterly dashboard reports that tracked the creation of those units did not at the same time track the losses that were occurring in the market.) The program has since rebranded as All Home, with the stated goal of making homelessness “rare, brief and one-time.”
Mayor Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) gathered a blue-ribbon panel of developers and community representatives to address the urgent need for affordable housing, but while the “grand bargain” they reached provided some developer fees and requirements to set aside a small number of units for those making 60 percent of median income ($37,680 for individuals and $53,760 for a family of four), it was a small fraction of the affordable units that will be lost under the HALA proposals and does little for those struggling at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
It’s a tough quandary for a mayor who talks of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement as seminal influences in his life. Their grassroots ethos is far removed from the realities of being a big city mayor. Sometimes he lives up to their high standard, as he did with the sanctioning of homeless encampments, going further than any of his predecessors. But his “sweeps” of unsanctioned encampments have pushed hundreds of people into the overloaded shelter system or deeper into the shadows.
The mayor has pinned his hopes on a nationally respected consultant, former Obama advisor Barbara Poppe, who is in the process of helping the city develop a game plan for reprioritizing its homeless investments, with an emphasis on Housing First and new subsidized housing.
But Poppe has already said that the city’s interim survival strategy of encampments is “a real distraction from investing in solutions.”
Among social service providers, the reaction to this latest round of public policy thinking has been mixed. Seattle’s complex web of homeless services could certainly benefit from better coordination, but to fine-tune a system that is woefully inadequate to begin with strikes many as a fool’s errand.
They will tell you how much time their already over-stressed staffs have spent in recent years trying to keep up with data reporting requirements that have never delivered what was promised: a coordinated system where “evidence-based” plans follow current “best practices” models. And they remain skeptical about whether the disruption from restructuring existing services would result in more costs in human misery than savings in money (if it’s possible to compare such things).
“The social service system is not broken. It is starved to death,” says activist and writer Anitra Freeman, who was herself homeless in the early ’90s. The priority should be “to keep people alive right now tonight,” she says. “We don’t need to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic anymore.”
This is not to say that important innovation and increased coordination of services hasn’t occurred and shouldn’t continue. Seattle has been a national leader in this respect. Examples like LEAD and 1811 Eastlake have been truly groundbreaking. And a current proposal to emulate San Francisco’s low-barrier Navigation Center with 24/7 services holds real promise if it can be replicated on a larger scale.
Still, many providers and advocates worry that shifting existing resources away from emergency services too prematurely risks dire, unintended consequences as the local housing market spirals further out of reach for many, and federal funding continues to plummet. Murray noted in January that “In the last five years alone, we have lost one-third of our federal funding for affordable housing.”
That comes on top of decades of mounting cuts to federal affordable housing funds, the greatest of which came between 1978 and 1983, when HUD’s budget authority, in 2004 dollars, fell from $83 billion to a mere $18 billion. Because local housing authorities follow federal money, a substantial portion of investments went to the mixed-income developments of the HOPE VI program. Precious dollars that come from the state Housing Trust Fund and city Housing Levy (our two most crucial mechanisms for funding affordable housing) went toward mitigating the losses that would have otherwise occurred with HOPE VI projects in garden communities like Rainier Vista and Holly Park, which had provided low-income housing for decades.
To make matters worse, the state drastically curtailed public assistance at the same time the economy underwent its most profound crisis since the Great Depression, followed by the fastest increasing rents in the country. Even those lucky enough to receive federal housing vouchers now often find themselves unable to secure any place where they can afford to use them.
In the end, our response to homelessness has come down to treating the symptoms of that debacle.
People have always had problems, but it used to be they could still find a secure place to sleep with a roof over their head. Without that cushion, social challenges often cited as the “causes” of homelessness — such as mental health and addiction — become magnified and more difficult to manage. And if the system ensures that someone will be homeless, it will inevitably be the most vulnerable.
Fixing homelessness without fixing the system that creates it has generally meant trying to fix the deficiencies of homeless people, which ultimately doesn’t touch the issue itself. Anitra Freeman breaks it down like this: “If you have five people and four housing units, you can fix every single problem those five people have and you will end up with one very healthy, well-educated homeless person.
“Homelessness is a hole in the system,” she says. “Every problem in America that tends to sideline people, marginalize people, can push people into that hole.”
No place illustrates that hole more vividly than the Jungle. Perhaps around 10 percent of those living on the street find their way to there. It has been a refuge for decades, at least as far back as the 1930s, for some just seeking a quiet place to be left alone in a makeshift shack, but increasingly now as a place of last resort, particularly for those struggling with substance issues.
In the months following the shooting in January, as the pressure mounted to do something, the city began developing a protocol to clear all the encampments. A state senator went so far as to propose an 8,000-foot-long fence around the area. Some city council members resisted the evictions, citing the absence of better options for the hundreds of residents living there, but the majority of those in the Jungle were pressed to leave.
I recently joined a group of women who began a weekly Under-the-Freeway ministry after the shootings in the Jungle last January. The numbers in the Jungle were down, most folks having left in anticipation of the city clearing them out, and now there are over 50 tents huddled together in a lot across the street. It got me thinking about doing outreach there in 1998 when a different mayor took action to clear camps and makeshift structures in the Jungle after a suspected serial killer had begun dumping the bodies of murdered women there.
On our Sunday morning walk, we came upon a particularly neat campsite, with a large tent, makeshift tables and small trenches to redirect rainwater, and I heard familiar voices. “Ben? Rita?” I asked. They opened the tent door and we could see they were having their own private church service, Bible spread open between them.
I knew Ben and Rita (those are not their real names) from a program where I served as a volunteer supervisor back in the late ’90s. I had to help bar Ben from the program because of an altercation. Not long afterward, they wandered into a community meal program that I started with fellow UW grad students. We talked about Ben’s temper, and shook hands, resolving to see if things could work better here. Pretty soon they were coming early every week, helping prepare the meal and volunteering at the thrift store our host church operated in the same space.
A grandson of one of the thrift store ladies befriended Ben and they began to run the dishwasher together every week, staying late until cleanup was done. On his birthday, the grandson refused a party because he didn’t want to miss dishes with Ben. Ben and Rita began to befriend other volunteers and eventually found a roommate, which got them out of the woods.
Ben left a couple of years later and I haven’t kept up with him, but somewhere in there, Rita got mental health help and eventually met another thrift store volunteer, a nice man with whom she lived until he passed away a couple of years ago. She benefited from two of the county’s more successful initiatives on homelessness: the Mental Illness and Drug Dependency (MIDD) Action Plan and the Veterans and Human Services Levy. The last I heard she still had housing, but in today’s Seattle’s housing market, that’s becoming an increasingly iffy proposition.
There are now even more folks like Ben and Rita living in the Jungle, or under a bridge, or in a tent city. But their options for solving their housing crises have narrowed. How can we do better by them? I’ll explore that question in the third and final piece in this series.
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.