Since Mayor Ed Murray declared homelessness an emergency in November of 2015, there have been countless meetings, town halls and conversations aimed at establishing steps toward the goal of bringing more people indoors. On the second floor of Seattle City Hall in the City Council chambers, task forces and committees and advocates and activists have convened on a regular basis.
There has been a lot of talking. There has been some action. But as the One Night Count — now called Count Us In — demonstrated this year, there are still thousands sleeping outside.
But do we really need to see those numbers to believe it? Do we need another big, tragic figure to tell us that talking about it won’t solve the problem? And if the number fluctuates — dips, drops, plummets, skyrockets — what does it really tell us?
The 2016 count found a 19 percent increase in folks sleeping outside. That same year, the city pledged to spend a record $47 million on homelessness services.
And yet, in 2016, our lawmakers did not seem to move with any increased expediency. The mayor’s office challenged and through the court of public opinion ultimately torpedoed changes to the city sweep protocol that could offer stability to folks living in tents.
A low-barrier, 24-hour shelter that was promised by the end of the year never materialized. Some new shelter beds were added, though far fewer than are necessary; the mayor reported a 10 percent increase in shelter space. New encampment sites were announced but have yet to be opened. Five public chemical toilets were promised but seem to have been forgotten.
Meanwhile, the residents of Camp Dearborn were forcibly removed. Many found shelter in The Jungle, only to be flushed from there, as well. Many are back out on the streets now.
Data seems mission critical to the city, though. Part of the sizeable influx of cash in this year’s budget that’s dedicated to bringing people inside is going specifically to data collection, and the Human Services Department’s budget summary uses the word “data” 26 times. Everything we’re spending money on is part of a “data-driven approach.” HSD’s proposed 2017–18 budget includes an earmark of $1.1 million for “investments for staffing and data capacity.”
That’s compared to a $200,000 earmark for expanded services for those experiencing domestic violence.
So it seems prudent to ask: What good is the data if it doesn’t spur action? And how much data do we need to collect before this state of emergency actually appears emergent?
How big does our homeless population need to be before we decide we have all the data we need and that it’s time to get to work?
Hanna Brooks Olsen is the co-founder of Seattlish; her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Salon, Fast Company and VICE.