This year’s tally of homeless unsheltered people during the One Night Count, 3,772, is discouraging news. At 9 a.m., Jan. 23, we began ringing a gong outside of Seattle City Hall for every person counted outdoors in King County by teams of volunteers organized by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.
As homeless people, advocates, elected representatives and others took their five-minute turns with the mallet, we struggled to make meaning of this year’s astonishing 21 percent increase from last year in
unsheltered homeless people.
The gong rang out every four seconds or so for a full four-and-a-half hours.
Real Change vendor Susan Russell was in tears. She remembered when the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness was launched in 2005. She was homeless then, spending nights by the Troll underneath the Fremont Bridge.
“The Ten-Year Plan gave me hope,” she said. “It said to me that people cared.”
People do care. Lots of us. But that, apparently, isn’t enough.
The last pre-plan count numbers were released in 2004. That year, the number of unsheltered in King County came in at 2,216, and the number of people in shelter that night was 4,636.
That means that over the past 10 years, the number of people in shelter on a single night in King County have risen by about 2,000, and the unsheltered count has risen an unbelievable 70 percent.
Since then, we have seen an ugly war on homeless campers under the administration of former Mayor Greg Nickels and the growth of various tent cities, including Nickelsville, as homeless survival strategies.
We’ve seen a task force convened at the beginning of the administration of former Mayor Mike McGinn that recommended city support for organized encampments and the creation of safe zones for others who are unsheltered.
Little came of this. While McGinn’s administration observed a largely “hands off” approach to Nickelsville, and even stepped forward to help mitigate various crises of flooding and rat infestation on West Marginal Way, the encampment was eventually disbanded and dissolved into smaller ones.
And we have seen Mayor Ed Murray’s recent attempt to get ahead of the issue by convening his own task force on unsheltered homelessness. His final recommendations include opening up to three new tent cities on city-owned or private property. We’ve learned that chasing campers around does not help anything.
The 2005 Ten-Year Plan held some lofty ambitions. By 2014, the plan said, homelessness would be “virtually ended.” Those who became homeless would have “immediate access to housing with appropriate supports.” The emergency shelter system would shrink and stays for people inside it would be short.
And there would be “no need for tent cities and encampments.”
“How is it possible,” asked one leading advocate during the gong event, “that so many amazing people can be working on this and still be losing this badly?”
There are many reasons, but once you cut through all the data-driven policy choices and promising approaches du jour like Rapid Rehousing and coordinated entry, which creates a single access point to request services, you are left with this: Radical inequality creates more economic vulnerability than an overloaded human services system can mitigate.
In 2013, area incomes for the wealthiest quintile rose by more than $17,000 over the previous year. Income growth for the bottom quintile was flat, with annual incomes averaging about $14,300. Meanwhile, rents are rising in Seattle at one of the fastest rates in the nation.
The math involved here is not complicated. Homelessness is a market failure. When most housing is produced for profit, those who cannot provide a profit don’t get housing
Our rising rates of homelessness are the end result of decades of predatory economic policies combined with massive disinvestment in housing and human services at the federal and state levels. Cities, even liberal ones like Seattle, cannot keep up on their own.
One of the gong ringers was a guy I’ll call Fred. He followed the sound to City Hall and asked to participate. He was rail thin, had haunted eyes and a mouthful of bad teeth, and he said he’d been homeless four times while struggling with AIDS.
Fred struck the gong just once for himself, stood with his eyes closed until the sound ceased and handed the mallet back. Fred was just one.
There were at least 3,771 more.