First it was the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. Then leadership from the city of Seattle and King County came together to declare a state of emergency. Now, there is a new effort to shore up a “fragmented” response and create a unifying agency that can coordinate the fight against homelessness across the region.
The new plan, announced at a press conference on Wednesday, would merge policymaking and funding around homelessness into one regional entity with the backing of local businesses. The plan would ostensibly solve the problem that faced All Home King County, an organization that acts as a conduit for federal funds and coordinates the annual point-in-time count for homelessness every January but had no enforcement capacity.
Neither Seattle nor King County have the resources to solve the problem of homelessness by themselves, Mayor Jenny Durkan and County Executive Dow Constantine told the crowd.
“One reason is that a regional crisis has to have a regional response and we simply don’t have the capacity in Seattle to do it alone,” Durkan said Wednesday.
“Reforms by themselves will not solve homelessness,” Constantine said before invoking the terms “data-driven solutions,” transparency and “customer-focused” to describe the new response.
The new structure would involve consolidating the existing, fragmented homeless services system under the joint, regional authority. That means projecting and planning housing for people experiencing homelessness, addressing emergencies in a coordinated way and engaging with community members.
A report about the new agency emphasizes equity as a goal of the new organization. The homeless population in King County is disproportionately composed of Black, Brown and Indigenous people.
Results from the existing system haven’t been universally bleak, just insufficient.
Recent changes to the homelessness response have increased the number of individuals and households that are moving out of homelessness, but the rate of people becoming homeless in the face of rising rents and a lack of affordable housing have outpaced these successes.
According to new numbers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), while homelessness is almost flat across the nation, it is still increasing in Seattle faster than the rest of the country.
According to HUD, Washington had roughly 22,304 people experiencing homelessness.
Nearly half of those were found in King County.
This is one of the reasons that the city and county are looking to better align their resources to work to end homelessness.
The existing system is housing twice as many people without a similar increase in resources, said Kira Zylstra, interim director of All Home Kling County.
“Those approaches are definitely working and we continue to see more and more people falling into homelessness every year,” Zylstra said.
Partners in the new effort see this as a real shift in how the region responds to homelessness, one that includes the business community in a new way. It was, as Leslie Smith, public policy director at Vulcan, described it, “what business has been waiting for.”
Business interests rose up against the Seattle City Council in summer of 2018 to fight the employee head tax, a tax on the top 3 percent of businesses in the city that would have raised upwards of $47 million per year to spend on homelessness services.
At the time, Marilyn Strickland, the president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said that business refused to get involved with the effort to design the tax because it wouldn’t change the end product.
Opposition largely funded by big businesses killed the tax which the City Council repealed less than a month after they passed it.
Around that time, McKinsey and Company released a report estimating that the Seattle region would have to spend roughly $400 million a year to solve the homelessness crisis and build 14,000 new affordable units.
Durkan announced last week that her administration would leverage $75 million in local funds to build or preserve 1,400 units of affordable housing by attracting another $300 million.
Local leaders realize that they can’t solve the local housing and homelessness crisis alone — unlike the federal government, city, county and state leadership can’t borrow money without the promise of paying it back, meaning there is a limit to what they can do.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the feds plan to jump in any time soon.
According to The New York Times, hud Secretary Ben Carson told aides privately that although he views “the shortage of affordable housing is regrettable” it was “essentially a local problem.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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