Back in the days of former Mayor Greg Nickels’ administration, Bill Block, the head of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, would start his public presentations off with a little exercise.
There would be a coffee can and a bag with a couple thousand BBs. “Imagine,” he’d say, “that these are the 2,000 homeless people on the street in King County every night.”
And then he’d start to pour. At first, you’d hear a few individual BBs hitting the bottom of the can, and as he’d continue, it would sound more like hail on a tin roof. And then, just a long sickening deluge of BBs, falling into the can, sounding a low roar of metaphoric misery, until finally, the bag was empty.
BBs aren’t people, but it made you think.
Now, that number is up to about 5,485. Block might need a bigger can.
As I was putting away a large bag of cat food last week, I thought again of Bill’s BB trick.
Were I to approximate our efforts to house homeless people in Seattle, I’d have to take that 20-pound bag of dry pellets and pour it into bins through a very small funnel.
That funnel would represent the mostly tapped out supply of housing that is affordable to the very poor. As I’d pour, the pressure from the volume would clog the funnel opening, and I’d have to shake the thing to get pellets of cat food to trickle into the bin.
This would take all damn day. Pouring, shaking, waiting. Pouring again. It would be a mess. There would be cat food all over the floor.
Anyone observing would think I was insane. “For God’s sake,” they’d say, “Get a bigger funnel!”
To me, this absurd vision feels like a pretty apt description of homelessness in Seattle.
Except we’re not talking about cat food, or even BBs. We’re talking about human suffering. We’re talking about people languishing in our shelters and on our streets for years on end. And we’re talking about not enough housing.
It was reported last week that in the first 100 days of the new downtown Navigation Center, just six homeless people were placed into housing. The available opportunities, even for priority placements, are dwarfed by the demand
We keep pouring, but it’s physics. Only so many people can fit within the limited space available. People go on and off the waiting lists, if they’re lucky.
Sometimes they die. Sixty-six homeless people have died outside or by violence so far this year. Already exceeding the number in 2016, and it’s not even winter yet.
Homelessness will be front and center at City Hall this budget season, and there are two sets of people mobilizing.
Speak Out Seattle is the voice of homeowners organized through NextDoor.com. They fear that if the punishing and inhumane homeless sweeps are curtailed, “encampments will increase across the City, and the City will have no ability to address them.”
We saw them overwhelm several Seattle City Council meetings last winter. For Speak Out Seattle, the Navigation Center coupled with homeless sweeps is working. And people struggling to survive are the problem.
The Housing For All Coalition, aka our people, is described in their press release like this:
“PAID ADVOCATES AND HOMELESS SERVICE PROVIDERS HAVE HUNDREDS OF VOLUNTEERS WHO ARE DEMANDING ‘STOP THE SWEEPS’ AND ARE SEEKING TO REMOVE ALL ACCOUNTABILITY FOR FUNDS SPENT ON HOMELESSNESS.”
Nothing shouts credibility like all caps.
Housing For All is calling for a halt to punitive approaches that cause harm without improving public health or safety. They ask for more low-cost solutions like tiny houses that quickly increase survival options. And they want the corporations that drive the upscaling of Seattle to pay their fair share for housing.
I’m sorry, but when homeless advocates are portrayed in your press release as the enemy, and you’ve reduced yourself to lying about their intent, you’re on a slippery slope. Your compassion and credibility just got checked at the door.
Or the NextDoor, as the case may be.
Tim Harris is the founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded the Spare Change homeless newspaper in Boston in 1992 while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full November 1 issue.