There’s nothing that seems stuck with the same actors fighting the same battles again, and the unsolvable problem only gets worse than Seattle and its homeless crisis.
It’s now five and a half years since a longtime Seattle mayor declared the thousands sleeping in the green belts and under bridges a major civil emergency – a proclamation that remains in effect but led to it due to political dysfunction never to urgent action or results.
So it would be understandable if you wink when I say this: Something has just shifted.
“I think this is a breakthrough,” said Lisa Daugaard, executive director of the Public Defender Association in Seattle.
“This is a turning point for the city,” agreed Tim Ceis, a business lobbyist who is usually on the other side of Daugaard. “We fought for it for 10 years. We don’t argue about it anymore. “
What happened is a coalition of downtown executives and representatives from nonprofits that last week unveiled a plan to effectively force the city of Seattle to treat homelessness as an emergency for good.
It’s a city-wide electoral measure, deliberately crafted outside of town hall and all politicians, that would do three basic things:
It would force Seattle to build 2,000 emergency or permanent housing units for the homeless in a year.
It requires Seattle to help pay for behavioral health and drug treatment services that come with the placement.
And most controversial, as soon as the shelter is available, the city “ensures that city parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces as well as sidewalks and streets remain open and free of camps.”
“The requirement is that the defined services and housing units must be available and once they are available you can clear a warehouse,” said Tim Burgess, a former member of the Seattle city council.
What’s noteworthy here isn’t that some Seattleers have agreed on a plan to protect the homeless and clear the city’s parks (though that’s noteworthy!). The fact is, it’s the same groups and many of the same people who argued for years about warehouse sweeps, the city’s navigation team, and the failed poll tax on companies that were supposed to fund homeless shelters three years ago.
Corporate groups led by the Downtown Seattle Association are on board and have already raised US $ 520,000 for the campaign. This also applies to neighborhood groups, who have always advocated greater control of unauthorized camps through the city. But also big supporters of homeless services like the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Plymouth Housing, and the Chief Seattle Club.
Daugaard says the coronavirus pandemic has blown up stagnant policies on the matter. It turned a smoldering crisis into a “disaster,” she says, and tents in the city have risen by 50%. It also caused a “profound shift” in people’s perception, which is legitimate protection.
Basically, the old model with the mats on the floor is not available, as are all barrack-style shelters. There are converted hotel rooms and tiny houses – places that offer privacy and a locked door and don’t group the homeless. Self-contained shelter became a necessity during COVID-19 due to disease control, and units were also found to be more effective in lifting people off the streets.
They also tend to make police-led “searches” of camps less necessary because people who live outside want to go into a tiny house or hotel room. This is the crusade I’ve been on since seeing tiny house enthusiasts last fall who “cleared” a park in the New Holly neighborhood, not by forcing the people camped there to leave, but by giving them photos of the houses have shown. No police required.
The same requirement is working with a new program called JustCare. It provides hotel rooms and counseling services to the chronically homeless and has successfully moved 130 of them to the area from some camps in Pioneer Square.
“COVID has imposed some kind of immediate reform on us,” says Daugaard, who works with JustCare. “Business people came up to me and said, ‘Hey, the thing you do with the hotel rooms, can we do more of it, please?’ ”
The long-term answer is still permanent shelter, which unfortunately can take years to build. The idea is that hotel rooms and tiny houses can be a bridge between the streets and permanent housing.
All of this is costly – providing 2,000 emergency shelters in hotels or tiny home villages with management and services will cost between $ 50 million and $ 100 million annually. The initiative, conceived as an amendment to the city’s charter, does not involve money. It mandates that the city spend at least 12% of its general fund budget on the subject (that’s roughly $ 200 million).
For context, that’s roughly the amount of money the Seattle government is sending into COVID-19 relief. And it’s also the amount expected to be increased by the city’s controversial wage tax for large companies (called the JumpStart tax).
This tax is being challenged in court by corporate groups in Seattle, but it seems to me that this corporate-backed initiative is undermining that challenge. You can’t very well demand a costly government mandate with one hand while undermining the source of income that could pay for it with the other.
“In my opinion, they now care more about the bad road conditions than about this tax,” Daugaard said of the corporate coalition.
We will see. The breakthrough here is only political. The initiative called Compassion Seattle has yet to qualify for the vote and then stand in front of the city’s voters. If approved, it would have to be put into effect by a city government that is grappling with the problem mightily – and implicitly reprimanded for its failures by this measure.
It can also be rejected by some who do not trust the forces behind it – namely large companies – and fear that without the promised accommodation it could lead to mass warehouse moves. So, as always, the path is full.
But as I said above, something has definitely changed. For the most deadlocked problem in Seattle, this alone counts as major news.
[email protected]; Danny Westneat takes a look at the news, people and politics of the Puget Sound area.