Last week, Real Change delivered 5,022 signatures to the Seattle City Council for our OutsideIn petition to make 1,000 people safer by 2015. As vendors Susan Russell and Sharon Jones spoke at the Oct. 23 budget hearing, four other Real Changers walked slowly into council chambers bearing a symbolic, cardboard coffin filled with signed petition sheets.
As our speakers noted that allowing so many people to languish on the streets is “a death sentence,” those carrying the coffin opened the lid and poured our petitions, printed on red paper, over the council chamber railing and onto the floor.
This was a dramatic act to demand action now.
The city council will be working well into November to amend and finalize Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed city budget. While the mayor has added $1.5 million in new funding for homeless services in Seattle, this gesture is grossly inadequate to the unmet need on our streets.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw is proposing $2 million to $3 million in additional funding to address the unsheltered crisis. Were we to make a serious dent in the unacceptable numbers of unsheltered people, this would be a strong beginning.
But that won’t happen. Revenues are down, and budget pressure is up. The phrase I keep hearing is “very tough budget cycle.”
A more attainable goal might be to fund the recommendations of the Center City Roundtable, a broadbased alliance of downtown Seattle stakeholders that ranges from groups such as Real Change and Plymouth Housing Group to the Downtown Seattle Association and the Seattle Hotel Association.
I stood with this group during the budget hearing while we presented a joint letter to council that asked for more visible policing downtown and more adequate human services solutions to address unmet need. Among our recommendations were $500,000 to fund the recommendations of the mayor’s new Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness, and another $500,000 to immediately expand emergency shelter.
While this is less than half the amount requested by Councilmember Bagshaw, the political reality is that we’ll have to fight like hell for even this. At this point, the “reasonable” ask is less than half what the Center City group has proposed.
So here’s my question: With more than 3,000 people unsheltered every night in King County, exposed to sickness, violence and death, how is another million dollars to address this crisis unreasonable? To place the number in perspective, this is less than 5 percent of what the Seattle Police Department spent on overtime pay last year.
Isn’t the basic safety and health of our poorest citizens worth at least this?
At this point in time, the consensus in city hall is “probably not.” This is a political reality that must be changed, and it begins with each one of us taking action and contacting the city council to support this minimal measure.
It begins with opening our eyes to the misery and pain that exists on our streets and knowing that we need to do more. It begins with acknowledging that the lives of the unsheltered have at least this much value, and that we as one of the most affluent cities in America can and must do better.
There are those who say that Seattle already funds a disproportional amount of emergency shelter, and that other county municipalities need to step up and do their share. They are right.
There are also those who say that shelter and tent cities are not the long term answer to homelessness, and that we must create more options that move people into housing. They, too, are right.
But these arguments — when weighed against the reality that current shelter capacity meets the needs of less than two out of every three people who need to be indoors at night — fade into political abstraction. These are rationalizations for inaction.
A million bucks. This is more or less the annual budget of Real Change. This is less than half of what it takes to build a relatively small transitional housing project. This is what it would take to show this city’s commitment to the basic safety and support of the unsheltered. It’s not that much to ask. In fact, it’s far too little.