Something just shifted in Seattle’s stuck homelessness debate

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Tent encampment
Credit: Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times

This story was originally published by The Seattle Times on March 5, 2021.

By Danny Westneat, Seattle Times columnist

There’s nothing that seems more stuck, with the same actors refighting the same battles and the intractable problem only getting worse, than Seattle and its homelessness crisis.

It’s now been five and a half years since a long-gone Seattle mayor declared the thousands sleeping in the greenbelts and under bridges to be a full-on civil emergency — a proclamation that remains in effect, but which, due to political dysfunction, has never led to urgent action or results.

So it’d be understandable if you do an eye roll when I say this: Something just shifted.

“I believe this is a breakthrough,” says Lisa Daugaard, executive director of the Public Defender Association in Seattle.

“This is a tipping point for the city,” agreed Tim Ceis, a business lobbyist who is usually on the opposite side from Daugaard. “We’ve been fighting about this for 10 years. We’re not fighting about it anymore.”

What happened is a coalition of downtown business leaders and nonprofit representatives this past week introduced a plan that would effectively force the city of Seattle to finally treat homelessness as an emergency.

It’s a citywide ballot measure, purposely crafted away from City Hall and any politicians, that would do three basic things:

It would force Seattle to stand up 2,000 emergency or permanent housing units for homeless people in a year’s time.

It mandates that Seattle help pay for behavioral health and drug treatment services to go along with the housing.

And, most controversially, it requires that, as the shelter becomes available, “the City shall ensure that City parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets remain open and clear of encampments.”

“The premise is that the services and housing units defined have to be available, and once they are, you can clear an encampment,” said Tim Burgess, a former Seattle City Council member.

What’s remarkable here isn’t that some Seattleites agreed on a plan to both shelter homeless people and start clearing the city’s parks (although that is remarkable!). It’s that it is the same groups, and many of the same people, who spent years warring over encampment sweeps, over the city’s Navigation Team and over the failed head tax on businesses that was supposed to fund some homeless housing three years ago.

Business groups, led by the Downtown Seattle Association, are on board and have already raised $520,000 for the campaign. So are neighborhood groups that have always pushed for more city control of unauthorized encampments. But so, too, are major homelessness services advocates like the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Plymouth Housing and the Chief Seattle Club.

Daugaard says the coronavirus pandemic blew apart the stagnant politics on the issue. It turned a simmering crisis into “a catastrophe,” she says, with tents in the city up 50%. It also caused a “sea change” in people’s perceptions of what constitutes legitimate shelter.

Basically the old mats-on-the-floor model is out, as are any barracks-style shelters. In are repurposed hotel rooms and tiny houses — places that give privacy and a locked door, and don’t crowd homeless people into group settings. Stand-alone shelter became a necessity during COVID-19 due to disease control, and the units were also found to be more effective at lifting people up off the streets.

They also tend to make police-led “sweeps” of encampments less necessary, because people living outside want to go to a tiny home or a hotel room. This is the crusade I’ve been on since I saw tiny home enthusiasts “clear” a park in the New Holly neighborhood last fall, not by forcing the people camped there to leave, but by showing them photos of the homes. No police required.

The same premise is working with a new program called JustCare. It offers hotel rooms and counseling services to chronically homeless people, and has had success moving 130 of them up and out of some Pioneer Square-area camps.

“COVID imposed on us a sort of instant reform,” says Daugaard, who works with JustCare. “Business people have been coming up to me and saying ‘hey, that thing you’re doing with the hotel rooms, can we please do more of that?’”

The long-term answer is still permanent housing, which unfortunately can take years to build. The idea is that hotel rooms and tiny homes can be a bridge between the streets and permanent housing.

All of this is costly — providing 2,000 emergency shelter units in hotels or tiny home villages, with management and services, will run $50 million to $100 million annually. The initiative, fashioned as an amendment of the city’s charter, includes no money with it. It mandates that the city spend at least 12% of its general fund budget on the issue (that’s roughly $200 million).

For context, that’s about the amount of money the feds are sending Seattle in COVID-19 relief aid. And it’s also the amount forecast to be raised by the city’s controversial payroll tax on large businesses (the so-called JumpStart tax).

That tax is being challenged in court by Seattle business groups, but it seems to me this business-backed initiative undercuts that challenge. You can’t very well demand a costly government mandate with one hand, while undermining the revenue stream that could pay for it with the other.

“My sense is they now care more about the bad street conditions than they do about that tax,” Daugaard said of the business coalition.

We’ll see. The breakthrough here is political only. The initiative, called Compassion Seattle, still has to qualify for the ballot and then go before city voters. If approved, then it would have to be put into effect by a city government that has struggled mightily with this issue — and is being implicitly rebuked for its failures by this measure.

It also may be opposed by some who don’t trust the forces behind this — namely, big business — and fear it could lead to mass encampment removals, without the promised housing. So the path, as always, is fraught.

But like I said up top, something definitely just shifted. For Seattle’s most stuck problem, that alone counts as major news.