Since Mayor Jenny Durkan issued a Proclamation of Civil Emergency on March 3, we’ve seen an unprecedented expansion of shelter in King County. This is good, but not enough.
For as long as I can remember, the emergency shelter we’ve needed today has been deferred by the promise of housing sometime in the future.
As Mayor Durkan recently told CBS, “we are finding some of the smartest, best dollars we can spend is going upstream to stop people from becoming homeless in the first place.”
While this logic makes sense from the 58th floor of the Municipal Building, King County’s approximately 6,500 unsheltered homeless people might see things differently.
Here’s the good news. In recent months, we’ve seen new shelter in Bellevue for 80 people, a new space for 24 people on Harbor Island and 40 new enhanced beds run by the Low Income Housing Initiative (LIHI) in North Seattle.
Additionally, LIHI has expanded their Lake Union Tiny House Village and opened T.C. Spirit Village, offering shelter to 60 more people in Seattle. Just last week, a 200-bed family shelter run by Mary’s Place opened on the Amazon campus.
All told, this is more than four times the amount of new shelter created during the “Homeless State of Emergency” over all of 2018.
In addition, more than 1,200 new spaces have been built to create some measure of social distance in our existing emergency shelter system.
A new seven-syllable word has entered the bureaucratic lexicon in the COVID-19 era. “Deintensification” is what we call spreading beds out to make emergency shelter less deadly.
King County has moved approximately 600 people out of emergency shelters into temporary hotels. Another 600 or so beds have opened in places like King County Airport and Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall and Fisher Pavilion.
While this is impressive, it doesn’t get anyone new off the street. For that, we need new shelter that homeless people actually want.
While we still await the results of last January’s point in time count, 2019 saw a 13 percent increase in the number of people counted in emergency shelter. Four hundred and eighty more people were counted in shelter than the year before, even though just 100 new beds were added.
From this, we might surmise that 2019’s reported 20 percent decrease in unsheltered homelessness was achieved by packing more people into existing emergency shelter than ever before.
This might also have something to do with that year’s 32 percent reported increase in unsanctioned encampments. When staying in shelter means being six inches from the next mat over, a tent on a sidewalk starts looking like the better choice.
But sleeping on the street brings its own risks. Despite a directive from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to leave encampments in place unless replacement housing is available, at least three sweeps of unsanctioned encampments have occurred in just the past month.
Homeless sweeps increase the hardship for unsheltered people while offering nothing in the way of permanent solutions. They are the most expensive and ineffective tool that the city has. And until we have better alternatives, they will likely continue.
At the moment, two proposals are on the table to dramatically increase the amount of permanent supportive housing in King County.
The Tax Amazon Initiative promises 10,000 units of deeply affordable housing over 10 years. The Third Door Coalition would build 6,500 units of housing in about half that time. While both efforts are welcome, neither will create a single unit of housing anytime soon.
Meanwhile, homeless people face an increased risk of death and disease today. The case for expanded emergency shelter has never been more urgent.
Seattle City Council voted last February to allow up to 40 new sanctioned encampments or tiny villages to open in Seattle. So far, we’ve seen one.
Maybe, by Seattle standards, this is fast. But we have to do better. Without shelter, people die, and 2020 might be the deadliest year yet.
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. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
Read more of the May 27 - June 2, 2020 issue.