This interview with Councilmember Andrew Lewis and Leo Flor, Director, King County Department of Community & Human Services provides an excellent overview of the state of homelessness and the response in Seattle and King County.
Former Seattle Mayor and Councilmember, Tim Burgess, offers a constructive path forward
The tents, dilapidated vehicles, and piles of trash you see in almost every Seattle neighborhood have become an enduring fixture. So has the human suffering.
We should quickly prioritize addressing these tent encampments and follow the lead of other cities that have successfully tackled this issue. Since 2015, when the mayor declared a homelessness emergency, we have spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars — and there are success stories to tell — but, tragically, there is no comprehensive plan to remove these illegal encampments or to help those living in them. Not now. Not any time this year or next. Not in five years. They are essentially permanent.
Is this [proposal] all a pie-in-the-sky fantasy? Could we actually serve our unsheltered and chronically homeless population better? The answer is absolutely “yes” because other cities have already done it. Look at Bakersfield-Kern County, California. Or Bergen County, New Jersey. Or Abilene, Texas. Each of these jurisdictions — along with more than 75 others across the country — joined Community Solutions, a national nonprofit organization, and rigorously followed their step-by-step process to reduce the unsheltered homeless population. It is a successful model Seattle should follow, and quickly.
A plan like this can eliminate unsafe encampments and start hundreds of individuals on a path to safe, stable, and healthier lives. Wouldn’t that be worth it?
Volunteer with We Heart Seattle
We Heart Seattle is a boots on the ground, grassroots community effort to promote effective use of city and privately funded resources to make Seattle beautiful and safe for all to enjoy.
Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in. We Heart Seattle volunteers have helped 20 people get off the streets and into better situations while also removing over 20,000 pounds of trash from Seattle parks and public spaces.
For decades, Seattle had a reputation for being one of the most caring, beautiful and clean cities in the world. Today there are no words to adequately describe what Seattle has become. Even the photographs below cannot come close to capturing the scale of the crisis that continues to unfold here. There are now thousands of people living in parks, under bridges, in greenbelts, on sidewalks and in vehicles in cold, wet, rat-infested squalor.
I have been an active member of our community since the early ‘80s, raising millions for education and many worthy causes as well as serving as a public official (Seattle School board 2009-13). In my four-plus decades in Seattle, I have never been more disappointed in our city and county leadership. Our neighbors are dying on our streets, suffering from drug addiction and the various substantive issues that surround chronic homelessness and yet our leaders spend millions of dollars on solutions that never scale to meet the need of individuals or the greater community.
The situation MUST be treated as the humanitarian emergency that it is. It is long past time for our region to coordinate a response to our neighbors in crisis, a crisis declared as an emergency in 2015.
If we want a better outcome, we need a new approach. A better approach starts with an immediate response to the most basic of human needs.
If we take these three steps now, we can dramatically improve the lives of those currently living in our greater community:
1. King County and Seattle should immediately designate land for sanctioned encampments with the intent of creating safe places to live while working to transition people into long term housing. We have the land. Surplus properties were identified in this article in 2018: New database: Room for thousands of affordable homes on Seattle, King County land These legal encampments must be established at sites (whenever possible) near services. An alternative/additional solution could be public/private partnerships utilizing the abundance of empty warehouses and other buildings in Seattle. These legal encampments must be managed by Seattle nonprofits that have experience in this arena. Folks should be given a choice of locations when at all possible.
2. To meet the needs of residents, these essential services should be made available at all sanctioned encampments:
Coordinated registry (as recommended by national expert Barbara Poppe) that identifies the needs and history of residents and determines the best pathway to permanent housing.
Medical clinic referrals
Drug and mental health services
Restrooms and showers
Solid waste dumpsters
Lockers for secure storage of possessions
Adequate security for the protection of camp residents and the surrounding community
3. The city must remove all unsanctioned encampments and allow everyone in the community to enjoy public spaces once again. Is there any truly great city in the world that employs Seattle’s strategy of homesteading in parks, greenbelts and on sidewalks? Given the alternatives we have available, there is no moral justification for this system of willful neglect. And the presence of hundreds of unsanctioned encampments on our sidewalks creates serious safety issues (ADA violations) for people with disabilities who cannot pass without stepping into busy automobile traffic.
4. We need to scale up and speed up the implementation of long term solutions. We know the long term solutions exist: requiring impact fees from developers to fund low income housing, city funded work force housing, requiring REAL affordable units within ANY and ALL apartment developments in the future and other short term strategies, such as hotel rooms and Tiny Houses, should be pursued immediately to house our neighbors in transition and create a pathway for both permanent housing and employment as well as rehabilitation where needed.
I urge our Seattle, King County and our greater community to take decisive action now.
Thousands of people are fighting to survive in cold, wet weather in city parks and green spaces at a time when thousands of clean, warm, and hygienic indoor spaces are available in King County. Tragically, many people suffering in unhealthy, unsanitary conditions are dying of neglect. We can and must do better.
“We have two crises — parks and homelessness. We must solve them both. But we cannot expect to solve the one crisis on the back of the other.”Thatcher Bailey, former president and CEO, Seattle Parks Foundation
The human tragedies playing out in our parks are being compounded as the environment and beloved parks and green spaces are being overrun, deeply damaged, and needlessly sacrificed. These are the consequences of a serious abdication of our region’s responsibility to protect both people and our environment. We need to act now to preserve and protect our urban forests, wildlife, and our most environmentally sensitive waterways.
We know what to do. Every year communities all across America effectively respond to homelessness caused by floods, fires, and earthquakes. In the same way, we can create and utilize safe bridge shelter options such as hotel rooms, tiny home villages, Pallet shelters, and sanctioned tent communities in thousands of non-parks properties available in King County to quickly provide affordable, voluntary, safe shelter. In a parallel effort, let’s rapidly build out Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) for the chronically homeless in our communities. A key to the success and acceptance of this solution is that welcoming communities can once again enjoy clean, safe, and healthy parks and public spaces.
You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else — Winston Churchill
Seattle is one of the most educated, wealthy and generous places in the United States. Every year, the residents of King County spend over $1 billion on homelessness. In the City of Seattle spending has more than quintupled to a budged $167 million for 2021. Which makes it all the more difficult for community members to understand how we could have created, or failed to prevent, one of the the worst homeless crisis in the country.
Solutions are as complex and varied as the reasons that people become homeless in the first place. But the one thing that everyone who is homeless has in common is they lack shelter and many now lack any place to go where they can be supported with the basics of a warm space, hygiene services and a supportive community.
We believe it is time for a true emergency response to this crisis. We know what to do. We need to create safe, warm and hygienic, voluntary bridge shelter options such as hotel rooms, tiny home villages, pallet shelters, and sanctioned tent communities in some of the many non-parks properties available in King County. In a parallel effort, let’s rapidly build out Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) for the chronically homeless in our communities. A key to the success and acceptance of this solution is that welcoming communities regain their clean, safe, and healthy parks and public spaces.
Following is a 15 year history of goals set, efforts made, and what has so far been an ever-expanding crisis.
2005–2015 —The Ten Year Plan to to End Homelessness fails In 2005 King County initiated a ‘Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness‘. After ten years homelessness was growing out of control. The most visible symbol of the ten year plan’s failure was a squalid, dangerous encampment under I-5 in called “The Jungle”.
2007-2020 — The “Boise Decision” creates a legal obligation toprovide shelter Courts rule, that communities cannot require a person to move from a public space if no other shelter is available.
2015 — Seattle seeks advice from consultant and national expert Barbara Poppe Poppe and Associates recommend the city “act now, act strategically and act decisively” to address the homelessness crisis. The Pathways Home Report recommendations are organized into three categories: (1) Create a person-centered crisis response system, (2) Improve program/system performance and accountability and (3) Implement well, with urgency.
2016—“The Jungle” a massive encampment under I-5 becomes dangerous and is cleared. After over 70 calls for emergency services, five shootings and two murders, an official conditions assessment is made of the encampment. The report concludes that “Conditions within the assessment area present significant public health, fire, safety, structural, and environmental risks”.
2018 — Audit highlights KC failings: “scattered oversight and no overarching authority“ The audit of King County’s operations highlights the way the region is failing to adequately respond to one of the nation’s most acute homelessness crises. Included in the audit is a response from King County, in which its Department of Community and Human Services pledges to implement changes over the next few years.
2018 — KC health professionals recommend a FEMA style response The three health officials on the public board are urging it to declare homelessness a “public health disaster” and advise local jurisdictions to respond accordingly — including potentially deploying large scale FEMA-style tents as emergency shelter before the winter. —Seattle Times
2018 — New database identifies thousands of surplus land parcelsavailable in King County The new database identifies thousands of land parcels that are already public property or owned by nonprofits. While many of those plots may already be in use, a new tool shown before a city council committee Thursday morning could help quickly locate those that could be repurposed or developed into desperately needed affordable housing. — Seattle P-I
2018 —The Third Door Coalition sets a goal of housing 3,500 chronically homeless Calling themselves the Third Door Coalition — an alternative to the two sides of the head tax fight, they say — the group has set a lofty goal of moving King County’s more than 3,500 chronically homeless residents off the streets and into permanent housing. “Solving chronic homelessness in a five year time period isn’t idly talking,” MacKay said “It’s applying the things we already know about what works and figuring out how to expedite those in a number of different ways to make that a reality.” —Crosscut
2019 — After the head tax debacle a new Regional Homeless Authority is created The new authority will focus on unifying and coordinating the homeless response system for Seattle and King County. This will include coordination of all outreach, diversion, shelter, rapid re-housing, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing services and some of the region’s prevention efforts.
2020 — To prevent the spread of COVID-19, shelter residents begin camping in parks Given little direction or meaningful support, people who had been living in congregate shelters begin homesteading in parks, green belts and public spaces.
Calling the situation in many of Seattle’s large parks “a spiraling public-health and public-safety crisis,” more than a dozen business and neighborhood groups sent a letter Monday to the mayor and City Council lobbying them to act. Scores of tents have cropped up at parks across Seattle, the letter said, also arguing there has been an uptick in trash, drug use, violence and maintenance problems in outdoor spaces. The letter asked Durkan and the council to create an interdepartmental team to address the mounting challenges “These issues are complex, but that does not absolve the city of responsibility,” the letter said.— Seattle Times
2020 — Solutions continue to be discussed, debated and implemented at a scale that does not match the need
New approach to sheltering homeless people during COVID-19 in Seattle shows signs of success, but funding in peril | The Seattle Times They hope to demonstrate that with the right supports — and attractive alternatives to sleeping outside — people will voluntarily leave encampments that have caused problems for neighbors and businesses and use the hotel rooms as starting points to stabilize their lives. “JustCare is a thoughtful and timely investment in a coordinated response to people experiencing homelessness,” Downtown Seattle Association Vice-President Don Blakeney said in a statement. “By providing access to hotel and motel rooms, JustCare can work with people in a safe and stable environment.” King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the county council’s budget chair, also stressed the potential health emergency posed by looming winter temperatures and flu season.