It has been more than nine months since Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a “state of civil emergency” in response to an alarming, and growing, number of people living on the streets. While the city has not seen Red Cross tents on the courthouse lawn as we would in the aftermath of a natural catastrophe, there has been plenty to conjure the image of a disaster area, with new makeshift camps popping up around the city every day.
Murray has threaded the needle between competing constituencies, expending considerable political capital to support newly sanctioned encampments in city neighborhoods while at the same time aggressively sweeping others away. But following revelations last week from The Seattle Times that the sweeps were characterized by miscommunication and chaos, Murray pledged to look more closely at how people are moved out of homeless encampments.
The phrase “do no harm” is one that enters policy discussions more and more these days. When an elected official heard the phrase recently, they literally began to weep, clearly sensing that, as a city, we might not be living up to this basic maxim.
Both the mayor’s office and King County’s All Home (formerly the Committee to End Homelessness) are awaiting reports from nationally recognized consultants with recommendations for modifying the community’s network of housing and social services. It remains to be seen what kind of road these good intentions will pave, but no amount of fine-tuning of social services can overcome the loss of most of the city’s market-rate low-income housing stock.
Seattle has had the fastest increasing rents of any U.S. city over the past four years, with monthly rate up by about $500 on average over that time period. King County’s annual street count of people experiencing homelessness has increased by 74 percent over the past four years.
“If we believe that there is a housing shortage and a homeless crisis now, just wait,” says Seattle Displacement Coalition Coordinator John Fox. “We haven’t seen nothin’ yet.”
So what do we do?
First and foremost, we must respond to the immediate emergency, which is becoming more serious by the day. But reaching for real solutions will mean asking hard questions about what kind of community we want to be.
In responding to the immediate emergency, both the city and county have made significant advances this year:
• The city has pledged $5 million in new investments, with plans for an innovative Navigation Center (with 75 beds and 24/7 access) to open in the coming months;
• The county recently released a $4.6 million request for proposals for emergency shelter, transitional (time-limited) and rapid re-housing programs;
• Voters approved Seattle’s largest-ever housing levy, by a margin of more than two to one, committing $290 million over seven years;
• The King County Council just approved a renewal of the MIDD, a 0.1 percent Mental Illness and Drug Dependency sales tax set to expire at the end of this year, providing a crucial $50 million infusion of resources in a state that ranks 47th in mental health services;
• The Seattle City Council, despite developer opposition, recently amended the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (hala) to include additional assistance for areas facing high risk of displacement.
And there is more to come, packaged in the consultants’ reports, which are due any day now. All Home Director Mark Putnam, who is charged with implementing the recommended changes in the county, likens it to the baseball stats-whiz book and movie “Money Ball,” “using advanced analytics to get an advantage.”
For example, they’ve been able to analyze the “per-positive-outcome cost” for programs that help people move from various shelters and transitional housing programs into permanent housing. The results ranged from about $100 on average to $150,000. The hope is that prioritizing programs that deliver more timely “good outcomes” will provide better stewardship of limited funds and ultimately house more people.
The mayor’s and All Home’s consultants are expected to recommend a greater emphasis on moving people quickly into permanent housing, with fewer resources going to transitional programs and greater scrutiny of the effectiveness of emergency services such as shelters.
“People are getting stuck in shelter,” Putnam says, noting that 25 percent of shelter users account for 75 percent of “bednights.” If those 25 percent can obtain housing, he says, “you’ve freed up all those bednights for the next person coming through.”
Still, Putnam acknowledges that “shelter is the linchpin of our crisis response system.” Shelters will always be needed, he says, “because we’re not always going to be able to get somebody a key to an apartment the next day.” As far as moving resources away from shelters, he says: “Until we have a more efficient system, I don’t see us being able to reduce shelter.”
To move beyond the management of this crisis, the community must find the political will to dream bigger, to make the preservation of affordable housing a higher priority and to invest what’s needed to replace the housing that has been lost. That has so far proven to be easier said than done.
The seed of King County’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness was planted at a conference in 2001 at St. Mark’s Cathedral called Creating the Political Will to End Homelessness. The plan became an initiative of the county government in 2004 and the 10-year deadline has, of course, come and gone. The conference has become an annual event, organized by the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness. If they decide to go ahead with it once again this year, it will be Political Will XVI.
After all this time, some advocates wonder whether it is even possible to generate the political will to provide housing for all of our residents. Many people have wondered whether we, as a people, are losing our capacity to care about this issue.
Heather Barr, who has been a public health nurse in Seattle for more than three decades, remembers being asked in the early ’90s to help develop a “man-down” protocol for emergency responders, as finding people unconscious on the street was beginning to become a common occurrence.
“There was this concern about people laying down outside and that we would have a response to that,” Barr remembers. “Now, it’s just like so many people sleeping on the ground all day long and nobody’s upset about it in any particular way. They may be upset, like it’s unsightly, but not upset that ‘wow, this shouldn’t be happening.’”
Rev. Rick Reynolds, executive director of Operation Nightwatch, recently reminisced about decades past, when he would routinely receive late-night calls from bartenders to come talk to a troubled patron, or from a single-room occupancy (hotel) manager worried about a kid who had wandered into the lobby.
“That kind of stuff happened a lot,” he says. “Even the merchants used to care about people in a different way than they do now.”
The compassion fatigue can be palpable, as my wife and I encountered a few weeks ago while helping an injured man at Pike Place Market, a location that used to be much more welcoming (or at least accepting) of folks who might be homeless. On this day, we were barely able to get a couple of paper towels to wipe up the blood and a suggestion that we “might want to call someone.”
I can only imagine how many more times a day shopkeepers encounter such scenes than they did when they opened their businesses 30 years ago.
But people still do care. For every story of a fed-up business owner using a garden hose to soak the inside of a tent, there is one of a restaurant carefully packaging its leftovers and leaving them out where those in need can easily access the food.
The problem for many Seattleites seems to be that they don’t know where to put their concern, other than to vote for the housing levy or make a contribution to a local nonprofit.
Hacking the end of homelessness
Local architect Rex Hohlbein has helped to provide a vehicle for that caring. Hohlbein became inspired to act after moving his office from the suburbs to the Fremont neighborhood, where he began to encounter homeless people.
At first, he began visiting with folks when he would take his lunch on the benches along the ship canal. Soon, he was inviting them to his office to get warm, use the bathroom, have a cup of coffee.
One of these was a man named Chiaka, who sold his paintings on the street. Hohlbein cleared out his storage shed to get Chiaka’s paintings out of the rain, and invited him to sleep in the shed. He then created a Facebook page to feature the paintings for sale.
A few months later, he received a message from Pittsburgh: “Oh my God, I think I just found my dad.” Chiaka is now reunited with his family after 10 years of living on the streets.
For Hohlbein, it was the culmination of “little increments” of change.
“All of a sudden I went, wow, I have to walk away from architecture practice. I can’t do this anymore,” he says.
He started a nonprofit, now called Facing Homelessness, and spends his days doing street outreach, photographing and telling the stories of those he meets. Using a Facebook page with over 37,000 followers in 45 different countries, he and his coworkers Sarah Steilen and Sara Vander Zanden have raised money to help over 500 individuals, from those needing to pay a tow charge to retrieve the vehicle they’ve been living in, to making a deposit on an apartment.
The back-to-basics approach of Facing Homelessness has struck a chord with thousands of Seattleites, and other social media platforms are springing up to engage the broader community in similar ways. WeCount recently launched a website and app that invites homeless people to ask for what they need — tents and backpacks, for example — and other community members to meet those needs. GoFundMe campaigns to raise money to keep people housed are becoming more and more common.
These efforts have led to hundreds of real human connections, and hundreds of people helped.
Will it work?
This kind of ad hoc community of first responders is transforming lives, but can it translate into societal change?
“We have to have people fighting for more housing, we have to fight for more shelter,” Hohlbein said.
But from his vantage point, “there’s not even a place” for his organization to act as a catalyst for political change in the current environment where NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) voices are often the loudest in the room.
“Maybe this is the architect in me,” he mused, but “why are we building all this stuff on top of something that’s not ready for it?”
Until we’ve built the foundation — a compassionate community that embraces those for whom all these services have been created — “we’re not on firm bearing here.”
Still, Seattle, with its long history of activism and progressive politics, is as apt as any major city to lead on this issue. And homelessness provides a lens through which to make connections among various movements for social justice: Seattle’s neighborhoods’ resistance to unbridled development; Black Lives Matter’s damning indictment of racial injustice and a ready willingness to take that to the streets; LGBTQ activists who know firsthand the experience of being driven away from their own homes as youth; Greens who see a similar moral bankruptcy in the rampant materialism that both destroys the environment and our social fabric; a new generation of young progressives inspired by the first presidential campaign they could believe in.
Communities of concern coming together to find common cause is what led to a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Seattle. Can we bring that energy to bear on homelessness?
If we could, then we’d have a real chance to do what is needed:
• Strict preservation rules for what’s left of our local stock of low-income housing;
• Community mental health programs robust enough to deal with the present need;
• Treatment on demand for those struggling with chemical dependency;
• And a movement to win massive federal spending on subsidized housing.
But it starts with each and every one of us, and our ability to join together in community.
The happiness factor
Late last year, when the United We Stand encampment was reaching the end of its stay at a Shoreline church without a place to go next, Brad and Kim Lancaster, who could see the camp from their law office, decided that they would invite the camp to use their backyard for a few months.
Soon, the Lancasters’ tiny yard was filled with tents accommodating 10 campers, while a family with four children moved into their 770-square-foot house with them.
Everyone used their one bathroom and kitchen. And in the midst of all that frenetic activity, Kim Lancaster told KUOW radio in an interview, “I’ve been a happier human being since the camp moved in.”
“Something happened to me” in those early weeks, she said. “Just all these little things, that’s the happiness factor … being able to give so little and have it be so much to the person that’s receiving it.”
In this light, the homeless state of emergency brings to mind the literature about disasters, and what it says about community. Sebastian Junger writes in his book,
“Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” “One way to determine what is missing in day-to-day American life may be to examine what behaviors spontaneously arise when that life is disrupted.”
In her book, “A Paradise Built in Hell,” Rebecca Solnit says: “Disaster reveals what else the world could be. … It reveals mutual aid as a default operating principle and civil society as something waiting in the wings when it’s absent from the stage.”
Perhaps this provides a clue about how movements get started.
The mayor’s consultant, Barbara Poppe, has called tent encampments “a real distraction from investing in solutions.” It’s a sentiment shared by many policymakers. But could it be that they’re missing where the demand for change ultimately comes from? It can come from starting to do what you do when there’s been a disaster: You start by addressing the immediate conditions in solidarity with those who are suffering, and then you seek the resources to rebuild.
So what do we do? Offer someone your spare bedroom. Make space for a tent in your backyard. Write a letter to the editor or a government official. Volunteer in a shelter or soup kitchen. Or as Hohlbein suggests, start by just saying hello.
“The issue is so overwhelming,” Hohlbein says, but everyone can start by “find(ing) their simple little entry point to begin their journey.” As to how that becomes a demand for broader change, Hohlbein describes it as “building a slow fire and letting it grow.”
A longer version of this story is on Crosscut.com
This is the final piece in a three part series.
Part One: Roots of a Crisis
Part Two: Fixing a Broken System