Why is it so hard, in a democratic republic such as America and in an inclusive city such as Seattle, for the recent Interim/Acting, but never permanent, Seattle Human Services Director Jason Johnson to see the value of engaging with grassroots, self-managed communities who exercise their right to be heard? This is the SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort) and Nickelsville response to Johnson’s recent slur in The Seattle Times, Feb. 15, of SHARE, WHEEL (the Women’s Housing, Equality and Enhancement League) and Nickelsville — three separate organizations led by homeless and formerly homeless people. In different ways, we each fight for the real solution to ending homelessness — affordable housing — while providing shelter space every single night, each day, every day, starting with SHARE in 1990.
The Seattle Times article occasioned Johnson leaving the department and restated that he meant to leave a year ago but felt he shouldn’t once COVID hit.
Johnson’s responses to this question-and-answer piece were offensive and off base.
A constructive and accurate response to his comments requires setting out some history, facts on the ground and what homeless people need right now. Times reporter Scott Greenstone did not trouble Johnson with these, instead focusing on the homeless services power structure’s present soap opera and state of mind.
Let’s start with money. Controlling funding was the base of Johnson’s power — no one chose to work with him because of his bizarre ideas or bureaucratic mendacity. Rather, it was because he controlled the city’s homeless services money.
This was a powerful perch, but Johnson exaggerates his power and control of the funding available to SHARE, WHEEL and Nickelsville. He is of the mistaken opinion that the City Council should play a minor role in city budgets. He is plain wrong when describing the role of other public funders, who he claims have deserted us. In fact, the Federal Emergency Management Agency steadily funds SHARE/WHEEL. King County returned to supporting SHARE/WHEEL at the start of the pandemic, and like it or not, the city of Seattle pays Nickelsville Northlake Tiny House Village’s utilities.
Nickelsville and SHARE congratulate our sisters at WHEEL for their remarkable perseverance, persuasiveness, hard work and coalition-building in starting a new low-barrier women’s shelter at First Presbyterian Church, with significant city of Seattle support, just last month.
Granted, United Way should support grassroots democratic organizations more than they have. Unfortunately, their present cookie-cutter requirements effectively disqualify democratic self-managed organizations that emphasize shelter and privacy.
Nickelsville Tiny House Villages, SHARE shelters and tent cities and other projects do not operate from the top down. We are communities of self-managed people. We are non-autocratic. We are willing to go to the City Council for a cause we believe in individually or collectively. We are in solidarity with those who offer their support for true solutions. In a democratic republic, this should not be held against us.
It is a shame that we struggle for establishment funding while traditional nonprofits (that don’t vigorously challenge inequitable schemes) gobble up the bulk of the city’s $165 million designated for the homeless services industry. Yet, our successful democratic, grassroots advocacy seems to irritate Johnson.
Johnson’s most wasteful and unsuccessful homelessness theory is Rapid Rehousing. It assumes that right now, here in Seattle, in a small amount of time in some agency-managed motel room, tiny house or enhanced shelter, homeless people can be fixed up a bit. Quickly, they will be referred by the kindly agencies to housing, where they will live happily ever after. And if the agency doesn’t move the homeless person along, Johnson would penalize the agency.
The result is that often homeless people are swept and placed into programs, then swiftly abandoned once a ‘metric’ is met. Homeless individuals, who have not had a “normal” existence for sometimes up to years, get a break on a couple months’ rent and then it’s sink or swim. The process is often mechanical. In this situation, one never has a chance to regain a sense of belonging. We can pack shelters and tent cities until they are bursting with people, but if they have nowhere affordable to go, the pipeline explodes.
Implementing Rapid Rehousing results in too many homeless people being pushed from shelter to street, or maybe to an unaffordable apartment for a month or two until getting evicted due to lack of funds. We estimate that way more than half those “in the system” don’t succeed in staying in housing. Some studies agree.
In 2016, because SHARE participants did not guarantee Rapid Rehousing would work, our indoor shelter system was defunded by Johnson and had to sleep outside as a group for half a year. Thank goodness more sensible heads prevailed, restored the funding, and SHARE resumed operating the most cost effective, democratic and community minded indoor shelter network in Seattle.
SHARE was right about rapid rehousing then, and our success helped stop Johnson from punishing other agencies who can’t implement the fantasy either.
When Johnson complains about us, this is why. His attempts — the 2016 nightmare is just one example — to punish those who are right about Rapid Rehousing and speak truth to power have failed. We don’t give up.
Nickelsville hasn’t given up either. They started Seattle’s first Tiny House Village more than 13 years ago.
Here is our disagreement with Johnson: We believe that poor people even while poor deserve a community to live in with safety, health, stability, storage, loved ones, good food, self-management, democratic decision-making and maybe even a garden. That is why we like Tiny House Villages.
And gets all the attention
The rich are still getting richer, and the poor are still getting poorer. While old-fashioned affordable housing is the goal, history and reality tell us Seattle is actually going backwards, not forwards. Every month it is harder, not easier, for poor people to find an affordable home here.
That is why Nickelsville finds Rapid Rehousing absurd. That is why we will not pretend that Tiny House Villages are a mere 3-month stopover on the rapid road to ‘normal’ affordable housing. We deserve a better home and community now, even if we are poor. That is what we can do — together — in Tiny House Villages.
In our 13 years of operating Tiny House Villages, the Human Services Department — as epitomized by Johnson — has over and over again ignored what we want and need, pretended that HSD failures are our fault, and tried to stamp out city support for democracy and self-management of tiny house villages.
Johnson has supported the violent and illegal takeover of democratic and legal Tiny House Villages. As he left HSD, it was still blocking a funding increase for democratic community organizations like SHARE and Nickelsville — even though the City Council instructed them to do this last fall.
Another unnecessary Johnson fiasco was Seattle’s Navigation Team, whose encampment sweeps gave police money and power to scatter people. Johnson said the Navigation Team succeeded because it made homeless people choose between the shelter system and the legal system. Forcing homeless people to choose between jail or a bedbug-ridden, privacy-violating shelter separated from their community and possessions is not a SHARE or Nickelsville definition of success.
Rapid Rehousing, the Navigation Team and $165 million. These Johnson-led initiatives wasted millions and did precisely nothing to make a sustainable solution.
An accurate history of SHARE/WHEEL and Nickelsville won’t be found in The Seattle Times. As Malcolm X said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Times Reporter Scott Greenstone’s job is to help Johnson avoid this history and denigrate democratic advocacy.
Let’s not forget that housing should be, and could be, a basic human right like food and clothing — though food and clothing also are not treated as human rights in our society. It is hard for housed people, going on with their lives the best they can, to understand that these are not treated as human rights only and precisely because the people who own the local newspaper, the radio stations and the TV station do not want you thinking so dangerously and out of step with their desires and economic interests. Their messaging will reflect that and try to influence the general public into buying into it wholesale.
There will be a day when criminalizing homelessness is accurately set alongside all the other forms of punishment in history that were forced on those who had no choice. First, though, poor and working people must have their own media that listens to and reports about working and poor people in the manner that the Blethen family’s Seattle Times reports the impacts of homelessness on the wealthy.
Seattle history also shows Johnson didn’t have to be adversarial. In the ’90s and ’00s, HSD Directors sometimes allowed their staff to problem-solve on the ground. We remember HSD staff like Karin Dawson, who listened and responded to facts, regardless of her boss’ nutty theories.
We worked with her in a respectful and professional manner that Johnson — or anybody — would have received if he would have sat down with us. The reality is we love to talk about and help solve problems; we do it every single day on so many levels that those unacquainted with us would be amazed at the dedication and perseverance.
We want to sit at the same tables as Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce. As a group of homeless people working for homeless people for decades at this point, we are experts in homelessness.
SHARE/WHEEL and Nickelsville cut out the profit of the homeless-industrial complex and pass the savings onto you! No other homeless services organizations do so much, at such little cost — period, exclamation mark! We don’t have an army of staff and a CEO; we have a self-managed group of shelters, tiny houses and tent cities that constitute the best solution to homelessness while we wait for real, affordable housing for all.
The foul weather recently caused the COVID-19 and economic crises to get even worse. Thousands of homeless and even housed individuals faced extreme cold, wind and rain. Did the government require or even ask the Sheraton, Hilton, Holiday Inn or other hoteliers to help? They’ve got the empty rooms.
No, the most notable help has been a series of acts of mutual aid from housed and unhoused communities: people who have a sense of what it’s like to belong. SHARE participants and Nickelodeons live like this. This is what we teach people. This is what makes a better society and should be supported and encouraged.
We choose, in a democratic society, to actually act democratic. We are not apologizing for that. Daily, in our shelters, tent cities and tiny homes, we hold each other accountable. It is with a clear and agreed-upon social contract that ensures safety, security and the ability to function as a healthy community. It isn’t perfect, but it is better than the alternatives, like any democracy.
We remain, as always, willing to work with anyone and everyone to end homelessness in a democratic, inclusive and community-driven process.
Find more information about Nickelsville at https://feednickelsville.wixsite.com/nickelsville and SHARE/WHEEL at http://www.SHAREWHEEL.org
Read more in the Mar. 10-16, 2021 issue.