Whenever we interview job applicants at Real Change, we ask them: Why are people poor? We want to know if the person has a structural analysis of poverty that would mesh with the way we see the challenges facing our community. Last week, a candidate we interviewed offered an answer that was as simple and yet potent as any I’ve heard: “Because people are rich.”
In January, just days after the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homeless announced the number of unsheltered homeless people in 2014 had risen by 21 percent over the previous year, Forbes Magazine ranked Seattle as the fifth fastest growing U.S. city.
Established home-grown giants such as Starbucks and Amazon continue their steady growth, while tech companies such as Facebook and Google are expanding exponentially. Expansion brings jobs, but only for a narrow slice. It creates pressure on the housing market, sending already high rents out of reach and pushing people out of the city or onto the streets.
So, is anyone really surprised that the unsheltered count has risen?
As Seattle turns into a San Francisco-style playground for the rich, the well-off will reap the benefits. For the people who live on our streets, the reality is a full-blown crisis.
Recently, in response to recommendations from his task force on unsheltered homelessness, Mayor Ed Murray announced support for an ordinance that would authorize three additional tent encampments on city-owned and private land. While this ordinance would only serve 300 people at a time, less than 10 percent of the 3,772 people tallied outside one night in King County, it’s an important step in the right direction.
In 2013, Real Change supported a similar ordinance, written by Councilmember Nick Licata. It fell short by one vote. This year, an almost identical bill will come up for council vote later this month.
Three Real Change vendors who have experienced homelessness testified on behalf of the ordinance at the Feb. 26 public hearing. Willie Jones read a letter signed by 95 vendors, saying, “We know that tent encampments, while not a long-term solution to homelessness, help provide immediate safety and stability to hundreds of people every night.”
Encampments address an immediate need for safety and community. Just like selling Real Change, they afford an opportunity for homeless people to regain a sense of dignity and connection.
Mark Putnam, head of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County (CEHKC) and member of the Mayor’s Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness, spoke in support of encampments. Putnam acknowledged homelessness is a “full blown crisis” and said, “We need to address its causes: Income inequality, affordable housing and decreasing safety net services.” In the meantime, he recognized the urgent need to support people in transition who need safe places to go. Interim survival mechanisms like tent cities are not housing, but they are safer than living on the streets.
Homelessness is a function of inequality, the inevitable by-product of unfettered growth and extreme concentration of wealth. The young, mostly white, tech employees who have ridden the wave of prosperity to Seattle, seen in large groups during lunchtime in South Lake Union, are winning the game. The poor and homeless, who congregate at shelters and missions in Pioneer Square, can’t compete for those jobs and can’t afford a place to live. They are clearly losing.
Instead of kowtowing to developers, Seattle could use growth to create more affordable housing through increased zoning regulation. Hopefully, Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee will include these types of policy solutions in their upcoming recommendations. In the meantime, the least we could do is provide the increasing number of vulnerable people on our streets with the means to find temporary respite in a self-organized tent city. Please join Real Change by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org to express your support for tent encampments.