The morning of Dec. 6 came, and with it, the police.
The 35 or so people who had slept at U-Camp the night before knew they were coming, as did the team of volunteers who arrived to help them break camp and move to another location equally illegitimate in the eyes of the authorities. People stuffed belongings into a two-door white Honda hatchback until it looked like a driver might be one burden too many, and then it drove off to the new site.
A woman, ostensibly a resident of the building, stood on the roof looking down, watching the proceedings.
A camper reported that that woman had been at ground level not long before, laughing at them.
Supporters milled, crossing the side street to pile structural materials against the carapace of a small building as police with the navigation team, a special unit that partners with outreach workers to offer services to people experiencing homelessness, closed off the empty lot with yellow police tape. A flimsy barrier, but an effective one when backed by the power and force of the law.
Jena Fox, a member of the District 6 Neighborhood Action Council, was frustrated. This isn’t what an “emergency response” to homelessness looks like, Fox said.
“No. I feel like this is just murder,” Fox said.
The city of Seattle’s response to the emergency of people living and dying exposed on the street has been a source of recrimination from advocates such as the Neighborhood Action Councils and more formal advocacy community. They say that the city has done little to exercise the modest powers available to it under the state of emergency declared more than two years ago, instead choosing to chase campers through the streets and greenbelts, depriving them of what little stability they could cobble together even as the weather turned increasingly cold and wet.
Officials defend their actions, focusing on the public health concerns and dangerous conditions of some camps and efforts to reform the process to make it more effective at getting people indoors.
Heightened emotions around the subject are understandable. The King County Medical Examiner’s office reported on Jan. 5 that 144 people who were homeless or without a verifiable address died in the county in 2017, exceeding the previous year’s total of 93.
If 144 people died from an outbreak of disease, government would know how to handle it. If 144 people died in a natural disaster — more than were killed when Hurricane Harvey slammed into Houston, Texas, a city with more than three times the population of Seattle — local government and federal partners would have a plan for that.
But homelessness is a disaster that has left tens of thousands of people struggling to survive, and despite emergency declarations in city after city, circumstances are only getting worse because the tools available are not suited to fix the problem.
“We need help,” said Will Lemke, a city spokesperson.
Help isn’t coming
A declaration of a state of emergency conjures certain images and expectations. The Waffle House Index at red. A proliferation of FEMA-issued trailers to house the needy. An act of Congress to appropriate funds for cleanup and payouts to get people back on their feet. An outpouring of resources from kind-hearted individuals hoping to make a stranger’s life whole.
None of that has taken place in Seattle or other West Coast cities that have declared emergencies, and not only because there’s nary a Waffle House in sight. No money at all has flowed from the state or federal government to ease the burden, both the city and county confirmed.
“I think in theory some of those things can be done,” said Lynn Nordby, public policy and management consultant with the Municipal Research & Services Center. “I don’t think it’s ever been tested.”
Traditionally, these declarations are a recognition that the resources of a local area to handle a major problem are tapped. The county acts as a backstop for a city, a state for a county and the federal government for the state, each literally passing the buck to the next.
That’s how it works with an imminent crisis, Nordby said. The deeply structural nature of homelessness is a different creature.
“When the imminent event is over you get into the recovery phase and once that passes into reconstruction and getting people’s lives back to normal. It’s done,” Nordby said. “There’s really nothing to compare this with, it’s a different way to use that particular tool.”
The same benchmarks don’t apply to homelessness because the mechanisms are fundamentally different.
When the subduction zone earthquake hits Seattle it will do so loudly, violently and unavoidably. Its destruction will be visible to the naked eye. It will be undeniable.
For many in the United States, the Great Recession of 2008 was its own kind of shadow earthquake, an ephemeral force that left invisible wounds on huge swathes of the population. Some people — largely the affluent White — were rattled, their nest egg damaged but salvageable. They saw shuttered shops, empty homes and the financial news screaming for the heads of bankers. They sipped their coffee, shook a fist and read their newspapers.
Not far away, lives lay in tatters as surely as if they had been laid low by an act of God. Low-income White, Black and brown people’s homes were stolen, their jobs destroyed and their personal wealth decimated. Recovery has been slow and unequal, particularly between middle class racial groups, according to Pew Research Center. Hispanic and Black families only achieved parity with their pre-recession resources a decade after the fact, according to the Federal Reserve.
And unsurprisingly, homelessness increased. According to a report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the number of homeless people in the U.S. increased 3 percent between 2008 and 2009 and the number of homeless families jumped up by 4 percent in the same time period.
The meteoric rise in homelessness, particularly in West Coast cities, can be laid at the feet of metaphorical earthquakes caused by deep, structural problems that governments at all levels did not take on when they could.
The redistribution of wealth to the top 1 percent.
The destruction of affordable housing and skyrocketing housing prices that resulted.
The lack of policies to control the increasing cost of rent.
The racist, classist nature of the criminal justice system, which, according to the Washington State Department of Corrections, released 85 people per month into homelessness in 2017.
The lack of regulation surrounding opiates that led to a spike in addiction.
The structure of systems that excludes people without a physical address.
Cities enacted law after law criminalizing the behaviors required to sustain life on the margins in an attempt to minimize the impacts of visible poverty.
Year on year, the problem swelled. Cities enacted law after law criminalizing the behaviors required to sustain life on the margins in an attempt to minimize the impacts of visible poverty. Prohibitions on sitting in public, on camping in public, on “aggressive panhandling,” on sheltering in a vehicle. Laws to put homeless people out of sight and out of mind, even as they and the advocacy community that served them screamed for help, like they were caught behind soundproof glass.
In 2015, the glass cracked, the voices came through and public officials began scrambling.
The states of emergency were declared, relaxing regulations and freeing up millions of dollars to pump into the system. Task forces and commissions formed, met, made their recommendations and dissolved like foam from a tidal wave, only to be replaced by more of the same in an infinite loop. Programs popped up and fell down under the weight of their cost. New measures of effectiveness and methods of deploying insufficient resources are implemented, moving money around like deck chairs on the Titanic.
But radical action moved forward with stiff resistance from those who preferred the status quo. Authorized tent encampments appeared, but their numbers and locations were strictly controlled. The number of homeless sweeps grew despite having nowhere for those people to go. Policy emphasis involved short-term help that funneled money into the hands of private landlords. New shelters with fewer prohibitions on substance use proved difficult to place.
This isn’t to say that the actions taken at the eleventh hour have accomplished nothing.
All Home King County, the organization that coordinates the regional homelessness response, reports moving record numbers of people into housing, 7,500 households in 2016 alone. But the numbers of homeless people continue to rise, and the toll taken on them becomes ever more apparent.
Cities have had more success tackling problems of the moment than the fact that decades of housing, health, taxation and criminal justice policies have left so many people stranded.
In San Diego, an outbreak of hepatitis A ravaged the street community, leaving 20 people dead.
San Diego officials snapped to, spending $6.5 million of city funds and $2.5 million in donated money on three industrial-sized tents that together took 700 people off the streets. Two will remain open for two years, and one up to 11 months. They removed barriers, gave people storage and allowed them to enter with their pets and partners.
“We knew we needed to act quickly, and have a safe and sanitary place to get these individuals off the street,” said Jonathan Hererra, San Diego’s Senior Adviser on Homelessness.
The effort wouldn’t have been possible without the state of emergency declaration, Hererra said.
“This is a crisis and it can and must and is being treated as such,” he said.
Neighboring Tacoma, Washington, leveraged its state of emergency in a similar way, but with a twist. Rather than declaring a state of emergency around homelessness, Tacoma went after public health. Officials launched a three-phase approach, first cleaning and providing hygiene facilities like running water and toilets to the larger camps, and then moving people into a large tent in the Dome district.
“This way we can move in and provide basic human amenities that are needed by these folks that are experiencing homelessness,” said Linda Stewart, director of Neighborhood and Community Services in Tacoma. “Being homeless is not a crime, we don’t want to look at it that way.”
The third phase involves broadening the work throughout Pierce County.
Tacoma declared a state of emergency around public health in May 2017. Its City Council extended that through 2018 in a Dec. 12 meeting that also authorized more than $2 million for Catholic Community Services to continue its work caring for people in the authorized encampment.
What it will take to declare the emergency ended, however, is anyone’s guess.
“We don’t know. I think that’s a question we’re all talking about right now,” Stewart said. “Embracing the question and considering it seriously is better than making a declaration of where we’re heading right now.”
Where do we go from here
Seattle officials are banking on the hope that a recent restructuring of resources surrounding homeless services will produce better results than the previous profusion of small nonprofits serving niche populations by focusing resources more intensely on individuals to get them into stable housing.
The drawback: Housing remains expensive and scarce in Seattle, making it difficult for people to get in and stay in. Policies adopted in recent years by the City Council will likely help. Landlords can no longer refuse to rent to a person based on where their money comes from, be it Social Security or government assistance. And, they can’t judge a prospective tenant based on their criminal history in both cases.
Still, none of this fixes the underlying lack of housing. Funds from the voter-approved housing levy will eventually flow, and the City Council approved $29 million in bonds to leverage for affordable housing production. It will take time, and the number of units planned get nowhere near meeting the need. The Housing Affordability and Living Agenda, the plan ushered through by former Mayor Ed Murray, is expected to produce 6,000 units available to people making up to 30 percent of the area median income.
The true number should be four times that, argue advocates with Housing For All, a coalition of progressive groups and individuals fighting to increase affordable housing production and end homelessness.
Until that time, it will mean that policies to alleviate homelessness will sometimes force people to accept options outside of the city, outside of their community and outside of their networks for support. Pathways Home, the city’s plan to combat homelessness, says as much.
The envisioned path to the end of the state of emergency involves removing people that the system has failed as the city struggles to nibble around the end of the problem that has become too large to solve.
That’s not good enough for advocates like Matthew Lang, a member of Housing For All.
“The city’s response right now is to fit a lot of square pegs into round holes,” Lang said. “Great.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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