In 2015, Seattle and King County declared a Homelessness State of Emergency. Since then, the number of unsheltered homeless people in King County has risen by nearly 50 percent. Early this year, the Count Us In tally of unsheltered people found 5,500 people sleeping in tents, in vehicles and on the streets. Last year, at least 62 people died outside due to illness or violence. This year, the number is already 64. People are dying in the face of depraved indifference to their needs.
This crisis is man-made. There simply isn’t enough affordable housing in the city. We’re reaping the fruits of decades of federal and state neglect of public housing and mental health and social services. People are left at the mercy of the private housing market, where one missed paycheck or medical emergency could mean eviction and homelessness. The cost of rent skyrockets as tech workers continue to arrive, real estate becomes a speculative market and landlords seek the maximum profit. This means that even those working more than 60 hours at low-wage jobs may find themselves priced out.
The city’s current affordable housing plan will not stem this crisis. According to the Housing Development Consortium, Seattle needs 27,481 additional housing units by 2030 that are affordable to households making $24,000 or less to bridge the “housing gap.” Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda plan projects only 6,000 such units in the next 10 years. That isn’t even enough for the number of people who are currently homeless, much less those who will be in 10 years.
Seattle needs 27,481 additional housing units by 2030 that are affordable to households making $24,000 or less to bridge the “housing gap.”
If the current plans to create low-income housing are so inadequate, how does the city plan to deal with homelessness? Unfortunately, some of their newest programs and policies are also inadequate and counterproductive.
The city plans to divert funding from existing shelter and service providers to pay for vouchers that homeless people and families can use to find housing on the private market, giving more money to the same landlords who already benefit from the housing shortage. The vouchers expire after nine months or less, and tenants are then expected to pay full market rent. They may find themselves homeless again, demoralized and with a new eviction on their record.
For those who end up on the street, Seattle’s current policies criminalize basic life-sustaining activities. Forcing people in unauthorized encampments to move along, without offering housing or shelter that works for them, serves only to disrupt whatever stability and community they’ve been able to establish. It is harmful, not helpful.
This fall a new coalition, called Housing For All, is pushing for a response that meets this crisis. The coalition urges Seattle to fund more high-quality and accessible shelter and services. We need more tiny house villages and indoor shelters that are not overcrowded and/or bug-infested.
Housing For All is urging a harm-reduction approach to unsheltered homelessness. Services should be offered without threat of removal.
Housing For All is urging a harm-reduction approach to unsheltered homelessness. Services should be offered without threat of removal. If an encampment site is unsafe or in conflict with other public uses, such as a sidewalk or a playing field, people should be directed to a better location. For people living in vehicles, Seattle needs to do better outreach and find alternatives to ticketing and towing that don’t result in debt traps.
Housing For All urges the city to pursue all progressive revenue sources to build new, affordable, permanent housing. We need more solutions like the HOMES Plan, proposed by Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Kirsten Harris-Talley, that would tax only the biggest businesses in the city. Those who are reaping the most benefit from economic growth should be contributing the most to support those being left behind.
We believe these policies will put the city on the right track and begin to build a bridge to stable and permanent housing for our homeless neighbors. But it’s not going to be easy. We need your help to win! You can learn more and get involved in the campaign.
Anitra Freeman and Allene Steinberg (WHEEL, Women in Black), John Smith and Jennifer Spriggs (Seattle Democratic Socialists of America), and Katie Wilson (Transit Riders Union) are all part of the Housing For All Coalition.
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full October 25 issue.