“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
— Mayor Ed Murray, quoting Dorothy Day, quoting Dostoevsky
In a culmination of three decades of perpetual crisis, Seattle late last year joined Portland in proclaiming that homelessness had reached a state of emergency. In January, Mayor Ed Murray followed with a major address in which he repeatedly referred to the city’s complex human service network as “broken.”
The numbers certainly suggest that something is terribly wrong. In 2000, the annual count of people sleeping on Seattle’s streets surpassed 1,000 people for the first time. This year, it was just shy of 3,000 in the city, and countywide it was an astonishing 4,505.
This doesn’t include those who managed to conceal themselves from counting in abandoned buildings, deep in the woods or wherever else they could hide.
The total homeless count — including those staying in shelters and short-term housing programs — exceeded 10,000 for the first time last year, giving King County the third highest homeless population of any U.S. metropolitan area. Only New York City and Los Angeles had more.
Beleaguered social service providers operate in constant crisis mode. Notoriously underpaid staff struggle themselves with post-traumatic stress from the “secondary trauma” of reckoning with the suffering all around them.
Nine months before Murray’s speech, the city’s Human Services Department had committed to a “Roadmap for Re-vamping Homeless Investments” to reprogram the over $40 million it spends annually, through nearly 200 separate contracts with 60 different agencies.
But this wasn’t the first attempt to restructure the social services world. In fact, to one degree or another, a similar exercise has been repeated by every administration since Mayor Charles Royer’s taskforce on homelessness found existing programs to be “overwhelmed” in their “limited ability to expand services” and meet an ever-growing need. That was in 1986.
What exactly is “broken” here? And why has it resisted our best attempts to fix it?
I spoke recently with a longtime community organizer who believes that the mayor is genuinely anguishing about the crisis.
Reflecting on Murray’s January speech, she recalled his quotation from Dorothy Day, and wondered if another Day quote might have been even more apropos: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”
Trouble in paradise
In the years between 1975, when Harper’s gave Seattle the title “America’s Most Liveable City,” and 1989, when Places Rated Almanac did the same, the loss of low-income housing units in the area along the old Skid Road, south of downtown, reached a crisis point. For the first time since the Great Depression, large numbers of people were visibly sleeping on the streets.
Organizations already providing social services on Skid Road mobilized to address the growing need. The Christian missions, which had provided sufficient numbers of emergency beds for decades, were no longer enough. First Avenue Service Center began offering a few shelter “beds” in the form of hard chairs. Soon the first mass shelters opened: the Downtown Emergency Service Center in 1979, followed by St. Martin de Porres in 1984.
Rev. Rick Reynolds began serving the Skid Road community almost four decades ago. In 1981 he worked the graveyard shift in the kitchen at the jail downtown. As he’d walk through the Public Safety Building just before 3 a.m., he often saw a woman sleeping in the lobby. “She was notorious,” he says. “People were concerned about this woman.”
Just a little over a decade later, he was directing Operation Nightwatch, which partnered with another agency to provide 50 shelter beds each night in that same space.
During his tenure, Reynolds said, “Nightwatch went from simply topping off the existing shelter network, to doing winter response shelter in concert with another organization, to keeping that open every night, because we needed it every night, to 103 beds, privately funded.
“It was supposed to be an overflow situation, and now it’s just another component in this whole array of services that are still inadequate,” he says. “And we still need an overflow site!”
The official response was only part of the picture, as a new generation of activists took matters into their own hands. Some began to occupy vacant dwellings in the late ’80s.
“They’d research a building, see how long it had been vacant,” recalls longtime housing activist John Fox. “If the owner was absentee … they just acted as if they owned it. They would just move in and … meet the neighbors and turn on the electricity and bring in the phone company.”
Some of these same activists helped form Operation Homestead, which embarked upon a series of highly visible occupations of old residential buildings in the city center, ultimately resulting in the saving of hundreds of units of low-income housing.
Another grassroots organization, SHARE, emerged in 1990 with Seattle’s first organized tent city. Over time, with its partner organization WHEEL, it became the city’s largest shelter provider, operating self-managed shelters in churches throughout the city. As the number of people on the streets increased even more in the early 2000s, SHARE established new tent cities that continue to operate in Seattle and King County.
From Hoover to Nickelsville
The official response to homelessness has included tough-minded crackdowns as well as more compassionate approaches.
In the ’90s, City Attorney Mark Sidran aggressively pursued measures designed to limit panhandling, access to parks and sitting on sidewalks. He ultimately lost a bid for mayor in part because his targeting of homeless people felt too mean for Seattle Nice. But the man who defeated him, Greg Nickels, continued on a similar tack and eventually joined Herbert Hoover in becoming the namesake of a local homeless camp.
On the other hand, the city has made impressive investments to address homelessness. Additional funds added since the declaration of the state of emergency bring total annual spending (which includes federal and state pass-through dollars) to nearly $50 million, about double what it was a decade ago — and triple what it was a decade before that.
Some of the work has been truly innovative: Housing First models, which are just the help that’s needed in many cases; the award-winning 1811 Eastlake housing program that follows a harm-reduction model, allowing residents to drink on site; diversion programs like the county’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) and Drug Diversion Court, which approach substance abuse as more of a public health issue than a law enforcement one; the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, which has focused attention on disparities in who experiences homelessness.
King County was a leader in promoting such innovations through its Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. Although that plan, launched in 2004, obviously failed to accomplish its stated goal, it did aid in the creation of thousands of units of low-income housing. The program has since rebranded as All Home, with the stated goal of making homelessness “rare, brief and one-time.”
Mayor Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) brought community leaders together to address the urgent need for affordable housing, but while the “grand bargain” they reached provided some developer fees and requirements to set aside small numbers of units for those making 60 percent of median income ($37,680 for individuals and $53,760 for a family of four), it will still result in a net loss of such units and does little for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
It’s a quandary for a mayor who talks of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement as seminal influences in his life. Their grassroots ethos is far removed from the realities of being a big city mayor, but sometimes he lives up to their high standard, as he did with the sanctioning of homeless encampments, going further than any of his predecessors. But his “sweeps” of unsanctioned encampments have pushed hundreds of people into the overloaded shelter system or deeper into the shadows.
The mayor has pinned his hopes on a nationally respected consultant, former Obama advisor Barbara Poppe, who is in the process of helping the city develop a game plan for reprioritizing its homeless investments, with an emphasis on Housing First and new subsidized housing. But Poppe has already said that the city’s interim survival strategy of encampments is “a real distraction from investing in solutions.”
Among social service providers, the reaction to this latest round of public policy thinking has been mixed. Seattle’s complex web of homeless services could certainly benefit from better coordination (a new coordinated entry system is about to be tested), but to fine-tune a system that is woefully inadequate to begin with strikes some as a fool’s errand.
Providers will tell you how much time their already over-stressed staffs have spent in recent years trying to keep up with data reporting requirements that have never delivered what was promised: a coordinated system where evidence-based plans follow current “best practices” models. And they remain skeptical about whether the disruption from restructuring existing services would result in more costs in human misery than savings in money (if it’s possible to compare such things).
“The social service system is not broken. It is starved to death,” says activist, writer and Real Change Boardmember Anitra Freeman, who was herself homeless in the early ’90s. The priority should be “to keep people alive right now tonight,” she says, “we don’t need to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic anymore.”
Many providers and advocates worry that shifting existing resources away from emergency services too prematurely risks dire, unintended consequences as the local housing market spirals further out of reach for many, and federal funding has continued to plummet. After decades of mounting cuts, Murray noted in January that “In the last five years alone, we have lost one-third of our federal funding for affordable housing.”
To make matters worse, the State drastically curtailed public assistance at the same time the economy underwent its most profound crisis since the Great Depression, followed by the fastest increasing rents in the country. Even those lucky enough to receive federal housing vouchers now often find themselves unable to secure any place where they can afford to use them.
Pushed into a ‘hole’
In the end, our response to homelessness has come down to treating the symptoms of that debacle and “the homeless” become a problem population to control.
People have always had problems, but it used to be they could still find a secure place to sleep with a roof over their head. Without that cushion, social challenges often cited as the “cause” of homelessness — like mental health and addiction — become magnified and more difficult to manage. And if the system ensures that someone will be homeless, it will inevitably be the most vulnerable.
Fixing homelessness without fixing the system that creates it has generally meant trying to fix the deficiencies of homeless people, which doesn’t touch the issue itself. Freeman breaks it down like this: “If you have five people and four housing units, you can fix every single problem those five people have and you will end up with one very healthy, well-educated homeless person.
“Homelessness is a hole in the system,” she says. “Every problem in America that tends to sideline people, marginalize people, can push people into that hole.”
A longer version of this story is on Crosscut.com.
This is part two in a three part series.
Part One: Roots of a Crisis
Part Three: Homelessness Crisis: Where do we go from here?