The story of one ordinary park brings new hope for Seattle’s homelessness emergency

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The story of one ordinary park brings new hope for Seattle’s homelessness emergency

I stopped at John C. Little Sr. Park the other day, a small hidden playing field in the South End, and was greeted by what might be misunderstood as a common sight.

It was empty. It’s nothing but a normal park again. And now the history of this park could lead to some kind of breakthrough in the town hall.

Last summer, 15 to 20 people claimed the park and children’s playground in the middle of a Seattle Housing Authority complex called New Holly. They were dug in with night fires and a wooden structure with a foundation and a staircase cut into the slope until the neighbors could no longer use the park.

It’s a scene that takes place in so many city parks that a Seattle city council member Andrew Lewis told me, “During this pandemic, the defining feature of our urban landscape was the homeless camp.”

The idea of ​​putting someone in an overcrowded shelter during an infectious disease pandemic is a non-starter, so city politics has been paralyzed: everyone stays where they are.

Enter the tiny houses. As I said in a column at the end of November, the outreach workers went to this park with a simple offer: Would you like to live in a 96 square meter heated cabin instead of in the rain in this park?

“It’s hard for people to believe, but all it takes to break this impasse is a tiny house,” one of the workers at the Low Income Housing Institute in Seattle told me at the time.

Conclusion: it worked. With no removal by the police, no punishment or protest, the homeless agreed to get into a better situation and the park is a park again.

In the Seattle homelessness debate, one feels like nothing ever works. So when something finally happens, people will notice.

Shortly after this story was published, which I used as a platform to ask Seattle to build 1,000 tiny houses, some business leaders, including a high-rise developer in Seattle, came from Lewis’ council office. Lewis heads the city’s select committee on homelessness.

“They said, ‘We have money for it, and we can get more,” Lewis told me. They said,’ We can get the business world on board. Let’s build more tiny houses. Quickly. ‘ ”

As a result, Lewis and some business leaders will announce a proposal on Monday to double the number of tiny homes in Seattle from 300 to about 800 this year (the city had planned to add about 120). What is unique about it? Plan is not only the speed that ultimately confirms that we are in an emergency, but also that private interests appear to be increasing to pay for the houses and prepare the sites.

Lewis’ draft calls for $ 7.2 million from the private sector ($ 1.2 million to build 480 homes at $ 2,500 each – they’re cheap! – and $ 6 million for utility work and other preparations at 12 new locations). The city would pay to run the villages, including electricity, insurance, meals, and 24-hour security.

Lewis said private donors have pledged $ 1 million so far, so the press conference will also launch a fundraiser.

The city estimates that 800 tiny houses would take care of around 1,200 homeless people per year due to the turnover.

“There is a growing recognition that the tiny houses are the greatest tools to deal with the unauthorized warehouses,” said Lewis.

For years Lewis characterized Seattle’s policy of unauthorized homeless camps as “cooped up” in what he called a “false dichotomy”. People on the one hand demand law and order, while people on the other hand refer to involuntary moves as cruel and ineffective.

“What is overlooked is that we all have an obvious common concern, which is that we don’t want people in tents and under highways,” said Lewis. “The tiny houses resolve the ‘sweeps’ debate by presenting this third way.”

Could be. Every time for the past five years I’ve argued that we should use tiny houses as shelters to get people out of the camps, I’ve been scourged by some as naive or hopeless and as a professional bullying removals by others.

“Tiny houses in and of themselves do not end homelessness,” describes a series of slides for Lewis’ proposal. “Only permanent accommodation can do that. However, tiny house lineups can instantly remove tent camps by providing extremely desirable places to stay for people while they seek permanent shelter. “

Tiny homes have the best track record of any type of temporary shelter in stabilizing people and then converting them to permanent housing, according to the city.

It doesn’t have to be a tiny house, but there is a pandemic realization that it can’t be a group house. A new King County program called JustCARE was also successful, moving 120 people from five downtown camps to hotel rooms. The danger is that hotel rooms are expensive and the money that came with government coronavirus aid may soon run out.

King County also has a promising plan to buy up pandemic idle hotels and convert them into emergency shelters first, and later permanent ones. The county believes this plan can get 2,000 off the streets by October 2022.

Lewis wouldn’t identify the private donors or possible locations until Monday at the press conference. He said it was clear that the overflow of camps in countless parks during the pandemic across the city led to this breakthrough.

“The current policy of benevolent neglect is a double failure,” a city advisory group called the Board of Park Commissioners wrote in a letter to city leaders Thursday calling for more tiny homes. It is not right to “deny families and individuals the opportunity to use their parks,” nor is it human to “leave people in those tents … through a long and rainy Seattle winter”.

“Benign Neglect” – I’m not sure what it is about our character in Seattle that has somehow made such a generous city so used to human suffering.

But instead of thinking about our mistakes, it sure feels to me like something is changing. The paralysis in this insoluble matter could break. You can see it in John C. Little Sr. Park. The fact that it is an ordinary park again is a truly remarkable sight, a sign that something has finally worked.

Danny Westneat:
[email protected]; Danny Westneat takes a look at the news, people and politics of the Puget Sound area.