The Seattle Times: Ending homelessness in downtown Seattle may be harder than expected

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Source: The Seattle Times

This story was originally published in The Seattle Times on May 12, 2024

The revitalization of downtown Seattle is so important to Mayor Bruce Harrell that he has supported two projects to address homelessness and its impacts there since taking office.

The first, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Partnership for Zero, shut down last year after it was slow to show results and funding ran out. The authority’s vision had been to end homelessness downtown first, then apply that blueprint everywhere else.

The remaining effort, the Third Avenue Project, is showing that idea might never have been possible.

Halfway through its second year, the project, which focuses on street disorder concentrated in the four blocks of Third Avenue between Stewart Street and University Street, has not reduced the number of people there, despite moving some into shelters or housing.

This area, sometimes referred to as “The Blade,” at the heart of the city’s tourism industry and a hub for open drug use and illicit markets, has bewildered city officials for decades.

The project includes an outreach and “de-escalation” team called We Deliver Care to be present 15 hours per day. They reverse overdoses, break up fights and ask people to move away from the doorways of businesses. Over the long term, they try to get people off the streets by connecting them with shelter, housing, employment and other services.

But they are running into two intersecting problems that make solving homelessness downtown uniquely challenging.

A transportation hub

When the Third Avenue Project began at the end of 2022, leaders thought there might be a few hundred people who used drugs, sold illicit goods, slept or just hung out in the area.

But as they started tracking names, they quickly blew by that estimate.

Every few months, they met hundreds of people they’d never seen before. And that flow hasn’t stopped.

Third Avenue Project staff have talked to 1,650 unique individuals in the area over the last 18 months, more than 90% of whom said they live outside the last time they were surveyed.

“We were really surprised,” said Lisa Daugaard, co-executive director of Purpose Dignity Action, the nonprofit organization that manages the Third Avenue Project.

It’s not just that more people are arriving on Third Avenue. They’re cycling out too.

More than half of the 585 people that Third Avenue Project staff talked to within the last three months of last year weren’t seen in the following three months.

“Downtown’s a transportation hub,” said Trey Kendall, a supervisor at We Deliver Care. “There’s some people that sleep out here every night, but then there might be another 1,000 that are just flowing through here, whether it’s from International District, Ballard, Burien, all the other hot spots.”

Michelle McClendon, project manager of the Third Avenue Project, said much of the inflow comes from local encampment removals.

“When encampment remediations happen, everybody goes downtown,” McClendon said.

She said people know they can hide in the crowds downtown, and find everything they need within them.

“You can purchase drugs, you can purchase stolen goods, you can barter, right?” McClendon said.

After a temporary stop, she said many move on to other areas they know or feel more comfortable in.

The people who stay downtown

The revolving door intertwines downtown’s homeless population with homelessness across the region. Leaders of the Third Avenue Project say that has shown them where to focus their limited resources.

“Don’t concentrate on the transient presence, concentrate on the subset of people who stay for a long time,” Daugaard said. “That’s, for me, the assignment.”

When the Third Avenue Project was just getting off the ground in the first three months of 2023, staff talked with 456 people. In the same period this year, there were 479. About a quarter were the same people from a year ago.

But that adds another challenge. Outreach workers and case managers who work in the area describe people who stay downtown long term as the most difficult to get off the street, with a higher prevalence of mental health issues and addiction than the general homeless population.

McClendon said that may be because services like shelters, food banks, hygiene centers or day centers are concentrated downtown, and people with more severe needs may require closer access than those who are more capable of taking care of themselves.

Kendall remembers calling an Uber for one client to go fill out housing paperwork. Once the client found out how long the process would take, he got out of the car because he couldn’t go that long without using fentanyl, Kendall said.

But, over time, with repeated outreach, staff were able to bring that person into housing along with others who used to be some of the most visible fixtures downtown.

Jaimo Godoy, 49, found himself living on Third Avenue at the beginning of 2023.

He had first started using drugs while working on fishing boats in Alaska at 21, where he said everyone used cocaine to stay awake on shifts that stretched past 24 hours at a time. He became addicted and started using crack and meth.

His wife left him, he said, taking his two children, and he lost his home. He began stealing to pay for his addiction. He was arrested at least 30 times and cycled in and out of jail and homelessness for decades.

For the first half of 2023, he stayed around Third Avenue where he said he smoked meth “all day long.” That’s where he met We Deliver Care.

Kendall said he and his staff saw Godoy twice a day, providing him food. After a few months, they saw that he was a long-term resident of the area, and asked if he wanted to move inside. Godoy said yes.

After moving into a shelter in June, he got clean and then moved into housing in December. He said he hasn’t used drugs in a year. Nowadays, he spends the majority of his time with his grandchildren.

“They trust me with the kids again,” Godoy said. “I’m back with the family.”

Mixed signs of progress

As the We Deliver Care team made the rounds on a Monday afternoon passing out snacks, a homeless man who calls himself Space Galaxy stopped a team member to express his gratitude.

“The fact that people still care about us gives us hope,” he said tearfully. “It makes me feel seen.”

Galaxy said he initially thought We Deliver Care staff — many of whom wear masks to block out the smell of fentanyl smoke — were weird. But after seeing them every day for months, offering food and asking how he was doing, he began working with them to try to get into housing.

The problem is, there aren’t enough beds, and Galaxy has been waiting for months.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority manages the region’s system for who gets to move into housing from streets and shelters. Near the end of last year, the authority adjusted that system to provide more access to housing for the Third Avenue Project.

Still, that only provided enough beds to house 29 people, and an additional 25 people have gotten into shelter.

Daugaard said the project has made a difference in other ways like reversing 135 overdoses and connecting hundreds of people to services like LEAD, which diverts people from jails to treatment.

Harrell’s office said safety is improving on Third Avenue, but “there is clearly more work to do.” The area within his Downtown Activation Plan zone saw a 23% reduction in reported crime this year compared with the same period last year, though Harrell doesn’t credit that entirely to the Third Avenue Project.

More businesses in the area have been hiring private security guards, and on a sunny Thursday afternoon, at the intersection of Third Avenue and Pike Street, three stood watch in front of Chipotle.

Across the street, four Downtown Seattle Association staff members in neon yellow shirts, who have added to their ranks, picked up trash or swept the sidewalks.

Parked in front of Ross Dress for Less were three police officers and a patrol car as part of the Seattle Police Department’s special emphasis patrols.

Capt. Steve Strand said the increased police presence primarily serves as a deterrent for crime but also includes moving people from storefronts and enforcing the new public drug use and possession law. King County jails do not accept bookings for many misdemeanors including public drug use due to staffing shortages, but Strand said Seattle police are seeking an exception for Third Avenue.

At the moment, the large throng that has typically formed next to Ross in recent years was not there. Two hours later, the police were gone and a crowd was starting to form, some huddled around a pipe and foil, some slumped over or sleeping.

Businesses along Third Avenue say they know the difference between short-term and long-term solutions.

Umed Laghari, co-owner of International Cigar, a business on Third Avenue, said he appreciated being able to call We Deliver Care members who ask people to move from in front of his business and said they are more effective than police. But he said more resources are needed to help people get off the street permanently.

“We’re managing the problem. We’re clearly not solving it just yet,” Downtown Seattle Association CEO and President Jon Scholes said.