Treating an Emergency Like an Emergency

I think a lot about homelessness. The causes, the effects on people experiencing homelessness, societal impacts, budget impacts. Just like I think a lot about subrogation law as applied to first-party insurers, and equitable investment in parks and recreation activities. These things matter to me.

In Seattle, we are facing a crisis. A State of Emergency has been declared, along with other major West Coast Cities (and Hawaii). The total of our community members – our neighbors, family, friends – experiencing homelessness is increasing at a very fast clip. This should come as no surprise, seeing as how we are also in the midst of an affordability crisis. An increase of $100 in median rent corresponds to a 15 percent increase in the number of families experiencing homelessness.  

It is no surprise that we are seeing such a rapid increase in those living in tents, cars, and shelters. The cost of housing has been skyrocketing – with average one-bedroom rents increasing 79% from January, 2010, until December 2015, and two-bedroom rents increasing 96% in the same time frame.

I confess myself troubled by some of the most recent comments from our Mayor, however. During an address on homelessness, the Mayor said “There is no single solution to all of these situations. That is why the polarized, one-size-fits-all rhetoric we increasingly hear from both sides is unhelpful.”

I admit that I am confused. I like to think I am on one of the sides. And on our side, I have not heard a single “one-size-fits-all” proposal. What we have said: build more housing. Provide housing first. Stop the sweeps if we can’t actually connect people with safe shelter. Ensure there are more shelter options, and that our shelter capacity matches the needs of the different populations within our community. If we are going to call this an emergency, treat the crisis as an emergency that is about people, not politics. Is it really polarizing to think that we can and should be working toward Housing First? If so, I guess I’m a damned radical.

Perhaps it is missed that so many of us advocating for a Housing First option also support implementation of HALA. We see the correlation between out-of-control housing costs, the lack of available housing, and the increase in homelessness. We experience the pinch, and want to do something long-term, and are excited to welcome new community members, and be in a position where all options on the table are being used.

With Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (benefiting families at 60% and below Area Median Income (AMI)), expansion of the Multi-Family Tax Exemption (benefiting families at 80% and below of AMI), and greater investment in the Housing Levy (which will have a particular emphasis on families at 30% and below AMI), our city is taking unprecedented steps for the immediate crisis. At the same time, planning for where the 100,000+ new neighbors are going to live, we are implementing a long-term strategy to help avoid the supply problem we are facing in housing. This will have a direct correlation to the long-term efforts to eliminate unnecessary homelessness.

Housing First is trickier, even though it shouldn’t be. Salt Lake City has shown how cost-effective it is – but so has Seattle. 1811 Eastlake, a shelter that does not require instant sobriety, has been a success. I hear complaints about people shooting up on the street, and needles being left astray. We have an opportunity to focus on harm-reduction, and incorporate safe-injection sites with safe needle disposal into the larger plan to combat poverty and addiction.

Another hurdle people find with traditional shelters is the time. Gotta be in by a certain time, and out by a certain time. The most recent data (which is admittedly very old) shows upwards of 44% of homeless persons did paid work within the previous 30 days. If you work a swing shift, late shift, or graveyard shift, many of our current shelters just cannot accommodate you.

Additionally, you are expected to cart your belongings with you everywhere you go. There has been attempts to create locker spaces so people can have a safe place to keep their things, but the lack of follow-through has made these not happen. This is a benefit of Tent Cities – people can keep their belongings in a safe place while making appointments, work, applying for work, etc.

None of this is free, however. With microhousing, we could have an opportunity to provide a relatively low-cost step on the way out of poverty for individuals, but the response from neighbors and elected officials has been to do everything possible to deny this type of housing. I’m reminded of a comment from Council Member Sally Bagshaw, concerned that people will be living “cheek to jowl” if a luxury high-rise is built near the Escala building in Seattle (another luxury high-rise). Having walls, a door that locks, and multiple rooms in your unit is not “cheek to jowl.” Sleeping on a mat on a floor six inches away from the next person is.

So maybe the extremism is the demand that we have housing available before sweeping people out of sight, out of mind. I was listening to KUOW recently, and they were interviewing someone in the Jungle. The person noted that they only moved there because the city swept their prior tent location – which was in the open, and provided more “eyes on the street” safety for this individual. The Jungle, as Tim Harris from Real Change has pointed out, is less than safe. Yet, thanks to these sweeps, the City is actively pushing more of our most vulnerable residents into an unsafe situation.

One where five people were shot, and two died, on January 26, 2016.

I remain unclear what the “one-size-fits-all” approach is on our side. We have called for shelters and transitional housing specifically aimed at people in the 18-29 range (who typically feel less safe in traditional shelters, and have different needs than older, chronic homeless populations). We have sought funding to explore safe housing for LGBTQ people and youth experiencing homelessness – a community that itself has unique needs due to the common causes (family rejection, discrimination, violence) that lead to this population experiencing homelessness. We have sought more support for day centers, lockers, and access to mental health and treatment.

And I get it – we can’t go it alone. But expecting the state, which has neglected Seattle for decades (except to drill a highway tunnel downtown), or the federal government, which is in even worse shape than the state, to step in and help is like expecting Donald Trump to stop being…well, Donald Trump. As I noted in a tweet recently – we were able to find $5 million for Pronto – we damned well could find $5 million for more tiny houses, more tent cities, more safe lots, and day centers until such time that greater investment can be made that puts a roof over more people's heads. It is a matter of priority. And what is at stake? People’s lives.

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