Bring on the big trucks and the tents and the emergency rations and medical supplies, because there’s a crisis happening on our streets, and we’ve been called to action.
Mayor Ed Murray’s “Proclamation of Civil Emergency” tells a dismal story.
More than 10,000 people homeless in King County in a single night.
A 21 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness this year alone.
Some 57 homeless people dead on the streets of Seattle so far this year.
A 60 percent increase in heroin and meth deaths since 2013.
And 3,000 homeless kids now attending Seattle schools. Enough for one in every classroom.
A man-made tidal wave of misery has washed over the city, and the drowned are not saved.
They are living and dying in our greenbelts and in their cars. They ride the all-night buses when they can afford it and walk to keep warm when they can’t.
But the National Guard will not be coming. FEMA, rest assured, will sit this one out. The abandonment of the poor is state and federal policy, and the cities have been left to fend for themselves.
Federal sequestration has slashed critical resources for housing and led to the loss of at least 1,500 Housing Choice vouchers statewide. Austerity budgets in Olympia have cut $10.5 billion from human services and basic benefits for the disabled and unemployed.
This is why the mayor, the Seattle City Council and County Executive Dow Constantine will unite with leaders from other cities across the state and all the way down the West Coast to push for the resources we need. As a long-term organizing strategy for cities like Seattle, this is a welcome and long-overdue development.
But that’s not going to ease the overcrowding in our emergency shelters. It’s not going to empty the greenbelts and get the car campers back into housing. Not anytime soon.
That is why, while we welcome the call to action and applaud the steps being taken, we’re a little underwhelmed with the commitment that’s been made.
Recently, Los Angeles declared a state of emergency and put $100 million behind the effort.
Portland, a city with half the budget of Seattle, placed $30 million behind its declaration.
Seattle’s came with just $5.3 million, generated from the sale of a surplus city property. To compare, this city paid out $14 million last year in unauthorized police overtime.
When the state of emergency unanimously passed Seattle City Council last week, Councilmembers Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant asked that we behave more like there’s a crisis. Our city rainy-day fund has $100 million, just waiting for times of trouble.
We counted 3,772 people outside on a single night in January. It’s raining.
Here’s what this state of emergency is going to mean:
There’s some new money to put the homeless encampments in place on city property that were authorized earlier this year. That’ll pay for Honeybuckets and Dumpsters for maybe two encampments.
There’s also money to better connect those tent encampments to services, and to bring the data reporting that’s involved in keeping in line with federal requirements.
There’s 100 new shelter beds, an outreach van and flexible funding for outreach workers to help clear the unauthorized encampments that can be seen throughout the city.
Some of these encampments really should be cleared. They’re dangerously situated and have a negative impact on surrounding communities.
But those encampment removals will work best under conditions of maximum sunlight.
Typical homeless sweeps — that simply post warning signs and then throw everyone’s homes and belongings out 72 hours later on trash day — do not help anyone.
Better options must be made available, and the $5.3 million is a good start, but there just simply isn’t enough money there to support new encampments, clear the unauthorized ones, shorten emergency shelter stays and address child homelessness at the same time. Not even close.
Everyone from Seattle knows a cheap umbrella doesn’t stand a chance in a real storm. It’s raining, and the waters are rising. Let’s treat this like the emergency it is.