The Seattle Times: Homelessness authority has a vision for downtown Seattle recovery — but first they’re asking for $27M

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This article was originally published by The Seattle Times on Oct. 26, 2021.

By Scott Greenstone

The Regional Homelessness Authority has set its sights on downtown Seattle in the first major policy and financial proposal since its CEO started work.

Chief Executive Marc Dones is asking for $27 million for new facilities and outreach in an effort to solve chronic homelessness. The first deployment will be in what is likely the toughest Seattle neighborhood to make a dent in — the urban core. The idea appeals to business groups and politicians who have been clamoring for a solution to an increase in visible homelessness downtown, but it has also raised suspicions about why that area is being prioritized.
If the proposal is funded and goes well, though, it could be proof that the new Regional Homelessness Authority’s leader can solve homelessness throughout the county.

“We need to pick a place, and we need to have impact,” Dones said. “We can’t do everything simultaneously and expect to do it well.”

Before the pandemic, downtown accounted for more than half the city’s jobs and tax revenue. As the pandemic stretches on, it has been called a “ghost town,” where 163 street-level businesses were shuttered in less than a year. For a while, it seemed like the majority of people left in downtown were those living on its streets or in its shelters, and the people in the shelters, clinics and day centers helping them. One study documented an increase of 100 tents downtown as shelters shrank because of overcrowding.

There are about 800 unsheltered people downtown, according to the authority, most of them sleeping in alleys or tents on sidewalks and struggling with a combination of mental illness and drug use disorders.

As downtown sputters back toward normal, powerful business players such as the Downtown Seattle Association have pushed to make what they call “recovery” there a central issue in the November local election.

“We’ve by default, in a lot of ways, turned the sidewalks and streets of downtown into a mental health facility without any treatment,” said Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, who is enthusiastic about Dones’ plan. “That spills into ground-floor businesses, I think, daily.”

Nearly $20 million of Dones’ proposal would go to fund a 150-bed “high acuity” facility, staffed with clinicians, that would serve the people often seen wandering downtown in distress, dealing with significant psychiatric issues compounded by use of drugs like methamphetamine.

“They’re often absolutely alone, because their behaviors are sometimes too extreme to even be held by the community of an encampment,” Dones said. “We can’t continue to operate a system that doesn’t provide anything for folks who are in that situation.”

Dones estimates there are more than 100 people in this situation downtown.

The rest will be prioritized for rent vouchers and low-income housing with support services that would open next year. About $7 million of Dones’ ask would go to create a new “peer navigation” system, where professionals who’ve experienced homelessness would guide people not just off the streets but through the mazelike housing system into a more permanent home.

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents the downtown core, said the city’s waterfront investments along with tourism could “really drag the city out of the malaise of the pandemic.” This would likely help, he said.

Lewis said he feels confident Seattle City Council and King County will figure out how to pay for the proposed investments together, pointing out that King County’s government offices sprawl through downtown as well, in between City Hall and the Regional Homelessness Authority offices. Employees of the county and the courts have been pressuring city and county leaders for months to improve safety for them as they return to work.

Many of the city’s shelters are concentrated downtown, and outreach workers have reported that when people are displaced from encampments in other parts of the city, they migrate downtown, Lewis said.

For that reason and others, Dones does not want to build the high-acuity facility or a majority of new housing units downtown.

“The same way we say to the region writ large that there’s a concentration in Seattle and we need to balance new infrastructure, we say to the city writ large that there’s a concentration in downtown and we need to balance where we put new infrastructure,” Dones said.

Prioritizing an area with such deep pockets might garner sidelong glances from critics of big business’s influence in homelessness strategy. City Council President and mayoral candidate M. Lorena González has insisted throughout her campaign that economic recovery efforts have focused too much on downtown corporations that have lobbied against corporate taxes she and her council colleagues have tried to levy.

Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness, declined to comment on the downtown focus but did say the council during budget season should be prioritizing paying shelter workers better. Longtime low pay and turnover issues at homelessness nonprofits have been exacerbated this year by a labor shortage, putting shelters in a position where they’re often losing workers as fast as they replace them, making it hard to open new facilities.

Adjusting pay “has to be a key priority for anyone who wants to maintain and add services,” Eisinger said.

Zaneta Reid, a community activist who has been homeless and sits on the governing board overseeing the Regional Homelessness Authority, supports Dones’ budget proposals but wonders about focusing on downtown first. The last count before the pandemic estimated there were more than 4,000 homeless people with serious mental illness countywide.

“We’ve got high-acuity needs all over, in other parts of the county too,” said Reid, who listened to Dones present the plan Thursday. “I mean, it’s bad downtown, but maybe [this move] is because there are so many folks that make so much money down there.”

Dones thinks focusing on the entire county and its needs all at once would be a losing strategy. Long-term, Dones’ plan for making a speedy but heavy dent in visible homelessness includes raising $1 billion dollars from the private sector to buy bridge housing, where thousands of people can get off the streets while they convalesce and look for better housing or wait for it to be built.

While this first step may gain buy-in from big-pocket interests, Dones sees this move as “an alignment of a whole bunch of interests, instead of giving way to one interest or another.”

“I think that the logic here is not how can we appease all the businesses, although certainly we want to support them,” Dones said. “It’s saying, ‘This is where people go, and so this is where we support people.’”