On a recent night in Seattle, a line of people formed along the Fourth Avenue entrance to City Hall. With the dusk came a crisp chill, as people huddled in sweaters or slumped along the red wall. They were waiting to be one of 81 people given a mat and blanket, to spend the night at City Hall’s overnight shelter.
On Nov. 2, Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine recognized the issue of city and county homelessness with dual emergency proclamations. Murray and Constantine dedicated a cumulative
$7 million and include a variety of investments.
Since then, Seattleites have been digesting the news and coming to terms with what a state of emergency will mean.
Murray’s $5.3 million declaration asks for state and federal support and highlights investments to alleviate the crisis. In addition to 100 more beds in Seattle shelters, money will be divvied up to pay for youth case management, support for homeless school children, data analysis and trash removal. The city plans to partially pay for the programs through the sale of a 30-plus-acre parcel of city-owned land in White Center. The county intends to kick in $2 million.
Though some advocates for homeless people support the mayor’s proclamation, others acknowledge that the proposed funds from city and county sources may not be enough to turn the tide on homelessness in Seattle.
“There are over 10,000 homeless people [in King County],” said Ryan Miller, a resident of Nicklesville, the authorized encampment located on Dearborn Street. “One hundred beds is not going to put 10,000 people into shelters. [Mayor Murray] needs to think of broader options.”
The 2015 One Night Count, which took place in January, found 2,813 of the 10,000 homeless people were unsheltered and living in Seattle without support from transitional housing or shelters. So far this year, All Home, a countywide partnership fighting homelessness, reports 57 people experiencing homelessness in King County have died on the streets.
Along with the city’s proposed 100 shelter beds, the county is adding 50 shelter spots — commonly referred to as “beds.” Bill Kirlin-Hackett, director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, said that while he is pleased with the executive action, he questions the lack of new solutions to deal with homelessness.
“How do we keep that person safe and alive?” wondered Kirlin-Hackett. “I don’t think that’s a question the system asks right now. That is the first step [to address] exiting homelessness.”
After a failed 10-year plan to end county-wide homelessness and $40 million invested in Seattle for 2014 alone, Kirlin-Hackett argues for the pressing need for more innovation.
Kirlin-Hackett said he sees the benefit of long-term solutions, such as permanent housing, but is concerned about overlooking the immediate needs of people currently on the street. “No brainers seem to be the part everyone tends to skip,” he said.
But Mark Putnam, director of All Home, urges the importance of looking beyond the proposed investments. “If you zero in on that, it doesn’t tell you the whole story of everything they are providing,” said Putnam.
“[Seattle] is providing 1,600 shelter beds, and 100 last year,” said Putnam. “It’s not enough, but the reality is it can’t be solved and addressed just locally. And I think it’s important [Murray and Constantine] addressed it in many different ways as well as providing relief to people unsheltered now.”
Launching pad for community discussion
Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place, is grateful for the increased awareness brought about by the mayor’s proclamation.
“It think it’s been transparent, and the city is saying it hasn’t been enough,” said Hartman. “They’re hoping to spur on state and federal support, but also for the community to respond.”
Hartman has already witnessed community support and ingenuity. The Seattle Interactive Conference took place Nov. 3 and 4, just after the mayor’s proclamation. In response, the event included a “design swarm:” Tech teams were given an opportunity to create systems to solve three challenges that Mary’s Place, and many other shelters, face.
“This has been a platform to launch conversations and launch people into action. We’re better together,” said Hartman, who is eager about future collaborations spurred by the emergency declaration.
In order to activate the city’s investment, the mayor’s $5.3 million emergency funding needed support from the Seattle City Council. On Nov. 3, city councilmembers unanimously approved the funds along with an amendment that required Murray to submit bi-weekly spending reports.
Councilmember Nick Licata brought forward a suggestion to dip into the city’s “rainy day fund” to acquire an additional $2 million. A statement issued by Councilmember Kshama Sawant and co-signed by advocacy groups in Seattle, including Real Change, reaffirmed this suggestion.
“The City has $100 million available between the ‘Rainy Day fund’ and Emergency Subfund, which is utilized for emergencies,” the statement read.
Seattle Human Services Coalition (shsc) recommends a minimum $15 million to provide immediate services to alleviate current homelessness.
The money allocated for the current state of emergency would cover just over a third of the coalition’s recommendation.
Sawant’s statement highlights the contrast between current city expenditures and funding for the state of emergency for homelessness. For example, the letter states the Seattle Police Department’s overtime budget is $14 million, nearly three times the amount dedicated to combatting homelessness.
Pressure from the West Coast
Seattle is not the only city on the West Coast that has made an emergency declaration.
The city of Portland declared a state of emergency in September and has committed $30 million to address homelessness, nearly six times as much as Seattle even though Portland is much smaller.
Los Angeles also declared a state of emergency this year, committing $100 million to provide services for the 25,686 individuals without stable shelter.
“There are some communities like Portland and Salt Lake City that have the ability to open up shelters, and we could do that, too,” said Sharon Lee, director of Low Income Housing Institute (lihi).
Lee sees an opportunity for more 24-hour facilities, similar to a previous program that opened up hotel rooms for homeless families on an emergency basis. The funding for the program has not been adequate to continue to meet the need for the 500 families experiencing homelessness today, according to Lee.
The West Coast declarations place pressure on Federal Emergency Management Agency (fema) for assistance from the federal government.
Putnam, with All Home, said that federal and state support is the most significant part of these declarations. “There are things the state legislature does that can feel out of our control, but what we’re trying to do is get [Seattle] aligned with multiple cities in saying federal government is not doing enough.”
But federal support can be shaky. The HOME Investment Partnerships Program (home) is a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that provides support to states and local communities for affordable housing. Due to current budget negotiations in Congress, home funding may be cut, which would mean Washington state’s nearly $17.5 million allocation would plummet to $1.3 million.
lihi benefits from home funds, and the organization would face drastic cuts. “It would mean we can’t continue to build more housing,” said Lee, who argues that more investments into affordable housing need to be set aside.
Time for ‘realistic’ solutions
The declaration’s efforts will be implemented as temperatures begin to drop and some people continue to line up for Seattle’s shelters. Advocates for homeless people head into this winter with a sense of urgency while the city’s budget negotiations continue. Recommendations for human services funding will be finalized in the coming weeks, which could contribute funding to efforts to provide effective solutions.
While Lee is happy with the mayor’s proclamation, she still has reservations. “You can only do so much with Rapid Re-housing and diversion because some people who have been chronically homeless need a housing-first model and need permanent housing,” explained Lee. The housing first model combats homelessness by providing individuals with permanent shelter and subsidies, without requiring such things as sobriety.
Lee said, “[Some people] cannot survive on their own with three months of subsidies. So we have to be realistic. We have to continue to build and preserve low-income housing.”