When I first heard that Seattle was thinking of expanding our emergency shelter to King County Jail, I thought this was the worst idea ever. When The Seattle Times called for a quote, I was unequivocal.
“Symbolism matters,” I said. “Just the optics of housing homeless people in a jail are horrible.” Since then, I’ve reconsidered.
With homeless people dying in record numbers, and winter breathing chill and rain down their necks, we can’t afford to dismiss any option.
Tiny houses. Big FEMA-style tents like in San Diego or Tacoma. Modular shelter. Remodeling unused office space at the King County Jail. All of these are relatively inexpensive ways to quickly increase emergency shelter capacity and all should be considered.
Current shelter options are mostly full and have fallen far short of demand, and the most critical need — enhanced shelter that is open 24/7, offers storage and is open to couples, people with pets, working folks and people experiencing addiction — is in especially short supply.
The west wing of the King County Correctional Facility once had room for 435 jail beds. Since those were shut down in 2012, the space has mostly been used as offices and meeting rooms.
While use of this space would require extensive remodeling, with just a little more funding and political courage, these new beds could meet a difficult need.
One of the biggest problems Seattle’s Navigation Team faces, after the shortage of housing, is the high proportion of active drug users who are homeless and living outside. These are people who have already rejected most emergency shelter. Efforts to accommodate their needs have remained controversial in scope and small in scale.
When the tiny house village at Licton Springs allowed private drug consumption, neighborhood activists and others noted increased drug traffic in the neighborhood and a 62 percent increase in police calls. A new tiny house village in South Lake Union faces similar concerns.
Whether we want to help homeless addicts toward recovery and reduce the harm of active drug use, or just reduce visible homelessness on our streets, we need to offer drug users better places to go.
Places where lives can be saved and transmission of deadly diseases such as HIV can be reduced. Places where people are warm and dry, and have better access to services and health care.
Places where a public health nurse knows what to do in case of overdose. Places where needles can be safely disposed, instead of littering our parks and greenbelts.
Places where the exile of drug users from survival services can be ended, and people are welcomed into community.
While Seattle and King County officials have repeatedly expressed support for enhanced shelter and safe consumption sites as part of a low-barrier public health approach to homelessness, this work has mostly stumbled on the rocks of neighborhood reaction.
Seattle’s San Francisco-style Navigation Center was reduced from an initial goal of 300 beds to just 75. While enhanced shelter options have been added elsewhere, everyone agrees that far more is needed to bring this effort to scale.
While officials in Seattle and King County mostly understand the public health arguments for enhanced shelter and safe consumption, the political will shrivels when we begin determining where these might go.
Consequently, the $1.3 million for safe consumption in this year’s Seattle city budget was never spent. This money has been rolled into the new budget without any addition, and progress remains slow and tenuous.
The availability of shelter space at King County Correctional Facility is a golden opportunity for a long-term win-win, both for homeless people who suffer from addiction and communities that seek long-term solutions to unsheltered homelessness.
The county already owns the space, and the use of the building for enhanced shelter with safe consumption space would face limited neighborhood opposition.
Unlike Licton Springs, the building would be a controlled environment, where safety could be offered to both residents and the neighborhood.
And, most important, the Navigation Team would gain a critical new tool for bringing homeless addicts indoors.
Compassion means the most when it isn’t easy.
Let’s do something brave for a change.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
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