Director’s Corner: The importance of emergency shelters
The first thing I noticed upon reading Seattle’s new homeless services guidelines was that the goal of ending homelessness has transformed into the “ultimate, aspirational” goal of ending homelessness. Either one of these qualifiers would be discouraging enough, but paired together the two are proof that expectations have officially been lowered.
Here’s the 45-page plan, condensed to a paragraph: Things have changed. Seattle is more diverse, and there’s more poverty. Given these challenges, the city can no longer be a mere funder of services. It is now an investor, and investors seek results. Thus, ending homelessness must be a data-driven, results-oriented affair. Those who provide the desired numbers will get funded. Those who don’t won’t.
This bracing message comes amid an onslaught of depressing news. In 2010, the number of individuals in Seattle living below the poverty line increased from 11 to 15 percent. The numbers for female-headed families are even more dismal, with 27 percent below the poverty line of $23,050 for a family of four. While just 9 percent of Seattle families are black, they make up well over half of those in family shelter and transitional programs.
For every Seattle household that entered a domestic violence shelter, another 19 were turned away. While nondomestic violence shelters turn away too many to count, we know that in Seattle in January, 1,898 people were found outside while emergency shelters were full.
Worse, the winds of austerity are blowing hard from Olympia and Washington, D.C. Federal funding is in decline as the recent loss of
$3.75 million in Community Development Block Grants shows. In February 2011, the 60-month limit for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families kicked in, and 17,000 of these families in Washington state immediately lost their tanf assistance.
And yet, the hard-headed, numbers-driven data collectors at city hall project that by 2015, their modestly increased investments in homelessness prevention ($127,550) and housing placement ($338,860) will justify a withdrawal of $466,410 from emergency shelter funding.
It’s time to state the obvious. Emergency shelter provision is about life and death and should be based upon what’s actually needed, not some half-assed theory that says a little prevention necessarily equals a pound of cure.
Just 18 months ago, Mayor McGinn convened a top-level group of homeless service providers and advocates to advise Seattle city officials on homeless encampments. After several months of discussion, we unanimously concluded that the city should support low-cost emergency shelter options that meet basic survival needs, however imperfectly. Excellent should not get in the way of good, we told them.
Seattle’s new plan pointedly ignores this advice and swings in a radically different direction. As a result, grassroots shelter providers such as share/wheel — that offer dignity, safety and community at a fraction of the cost of more traditional shelters — will be left behind, and those they serve will disappear, uncounted and uncared for, into the greenbelts and car camps from which they came. The system that ignores them will forge ahead, heedless, driven by data and delusional dreams of success.
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