Wheel (Women’s Housing, Equality and Enhancement League) is a grassroots organizing effort of homeless and formerly homeless women. One of our major projects for the past 20 years is a low-barrier shelter welcoming any woman, in any condition, at any time of night — the only shelter of its kind in Seattle.
COVID has impacted the homeless community severely. We welcome the Tax Amazon legislation proposed by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales. It would tax the most prosperous 2 percent of businesses to provide immediate relief for homeless people and others hit by the COVID crisis and to fund steps on the homeless emergency, building 10,000 new units of low-income housing.
Council hearings on this have been canceled for the duration of the Governor’s stay-at-home orders, because it is deemed not “related to the immediate COVID-19 public health emergency.” This is the only emergency COVID aid that is going to directly help homeless people!
We were already in an officially recognized, severe state of emergency. Now homeless people and everyone working with and serving homeless people are in this new emergency atop an emergency already stretched thin.
When you’re homeless, you’re always afraid. You’re afraid while you’re sleeping. Now add another fear on top of that.
You never have everything you need. You always have to choose between one need and another. Now you have new needs that your life depends on, and no new money.
WHEEL together with SHARE (homeless and formerly homeless men and women) provide a big slice of King County emergency shelter, some with church hosts. We provide it for each other, self-managed and self-maintained, providing dignity and empowerment along with survival.
We do it on a shoestring. It’s been a scramble. Now it is a grind. It’s nerve-wracking and exhausting, and if we don’t get help soon, it’s going to be heartbreaking when we have to tell a woman that we have no room, and nobody else does either.
There’s no mental health support for the people in shelter or the staff. No treatment support. No support. Hospitals are still releasing people to the streets with no housing — without even a shelter referral. Police brought a woman to the WHEEL shelter with severe mental health issues because the hospital had released her with nowhere to go!
There’s no new shelter. New sites have opened to spread people out. That’s not more beds. For 20 years, WHEEL has been able to say that no woman is ever turned away, no matter how full we are. Now we have to limit our capacity. WHEEL has asked repeatedly for hotel vouchers, like the ones given to several other programs, and for collaboration in planning added capacity. We haven’t even received a reply.
The CDC advised cities NOT to sweep encampments at this time, but our city leaders went ahead and swept one in Ballard May 4. There was not enough shelter for everyone who had been living there.
Whenever the “shelter-in-place” orders are over, the rooms that were opened for “spacing” will close, the shelters that have been allowed to go to 24 hours will go back to night only, and there will still be no new beds, and no new housing.
Planning for the end of temporary help needs to start now, and the SHARE/WHEEL community needs to be at that table, with our experience and expertise. Let’s not go back to “normal.” Normal was killing people! Let’s prove that we can meet an emergency at the scale of the emergency, and then continue to do it. We can end homelessness, if we actually try.
An effort at the scale of the emergency will take many times the amount targeted in this legislation. The Sawant-Morales Tax Amazon legislation is the biggest first step I have seen in 25 years. To do less would be like sending an expedition up Mount Everest with only half the needed supplies: The goal isn’t going to be reached, and people will die.
There is no reasonable excuse for the council to delay this emergency legislation. It will save lives and lessen the misery that women living on the street are feeling. We need the city to tax our biggest businesses without watering down the councilmembers’ proposal, without delay.
Thank you, Kshama, for getting the ball rolling. Now let’s all get behind it and push, and get this done!
Anitra Freeman is a formerly homeless participant in WHEEL and SHARE and a founder of WHEEL Women in Black.
Read more of the May 20-26, 2020 issue.