3. Homelessness continues to be the top issue facing Seattle, yet we have made little progress toward housing our homeless population. In your estimation, what is the City’s role in addressing this crisis? Where would you spend your energy, leadership and resources to have the greatest impact?
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Seattle acts too often in a silo. We need city leaders who will collaborate with state and regional jurisdictions on a coordinated regional approach because homelessness doesn’t end at our city borders and because our city doesn’t have the funding capacity to solve it, especially with regards to needed mental health services. We need more shelters, transitional housing and wrap-around services, including drug treatment on-demand, with a dire need for more case workers.
In the short-term, the city can no longer condone people sleeping in tents in our parks and open spaces. It is not compassionate to allow people to continue to live in such deplorable conditions. It is unsafe and unhygienic. This is a public health issue for people in tents and for our broader community which merits stronger urgency to solve. We are serving no one’s best interests with the status quo. Because of the 9th District Court Ruling and because of common sense and decency, people need somewhere to sleep that has hygiene facilities. Until we have enough shelter beds, I favor immediate short-term housing such as modular housing, container housing, and/or FEMA-style emergency tents with running water and toilet facilities, private lockers for personal storage, and case workers to assist people on their continuum towards self-sufficiency. In the long-term, we need more permanent supportive housing with wrap-around services. I would work with the private sector in a collaborative way to help fund more permanent supportive housing. Premera, Providence and Swedish showed the way by each donating $5M to Plymouth Housing. We need more of this.
To build trust with the electorate, there must be more transparency and accountability on how current funds are being spent and what taxpayers are getting for their dollars. What’s working and what’s not? Why would more funds be needed and what would they go toward? Our system now is too fragmented and there is duplicative services. In order to be financially and programmatically successful, we must coordinate services. A regional entity is best suited for this.
Seattle should look to best practices in other communities around the country. There are good examples of other cities managing homelessness and providing a continuum of care better than we are. San Antonio’s Haven for Hope is one such example.
As one of my longtime proud-Seattle friends stated recently, “when it comes to homelessness, it feels like we’re failing.” And as I canvass across my district, this is the number one issue I hear from residents. The path to homelessness is usually long, often involving a history of child or domestic abuse, trauma, inadequate treatment for mental health problems, lack of strong family or support systems, addiction, job loss, unaffordable housing, and poverty. These are common and interrelated contributors to homelessness. Because this is a complex crisis, it requires intentional interventions, at multiple levels, over time, for us to make headway. The City must do a better job taking a leadership role in addressing this crisis while fostering community-wide solutions that include business, community, neighborhood, faith-based and veterans groups, and other social service organizations. We cannot have an “us vs them” mentality, and we can’t say it’s just “up to the city” to address the underlying causes of homelessness. It will take honest dialogue, financial investments, utilizing actual data, and real partnerships to make improvements.
There are currently multiple city agencies, County programs, and contracted community organizations, working on this crisis. Yet our own City Auditor indicates there are gaps, opportunities, and that we should be studying and learning from practices in other cities and jurisdictions. The City should be coordinating and organizing our regional efforts across the coalition of stakeholders that includes agencies, service providers, businesses, and residents. One of the most immediate approaches I’d lead on is making more stable, permanent, and supportive housing available for the chronically homeless on our streets, many with mental health or addiction challenges. Research and our direct experience show that the most cost-effective and sensible approach is to provide permanent supportive housing, like that provided by Plymouth Housing and DESC.
Additionally, the City must get creative to lower costs for building more supportive housing. For example, the city government should consider waiving building permit fees, expediting siting decisions, and persuading the state legislature to waive the sales tax on new construction for facilities serving the chronically homeless. These simple steps could erase millions of dollars in costs and get this specialty housing built faster.
As a lifelong family physician in Seattle who has focused primarily on serving homeless and marginalized populations, and as a business and community leader, I look forward to bringing effective, collaborative, and healthy leadership to our City Council around this critical problem. It is our moral obligation to improve our efforts around the unsheltered in Seattle.
We have done the studies and have the roadmap to address the homelessness, housing, and public health crisis. I will not fund additional studies to tell us what we already know, and I will fight to fund implementation tied to outcome-based measurement with regular public reporting.
The Council’s role is to work with the Executive in her implementation of the solutions and to partner with King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties to address this crisis on a regional level. We can’t wait any longer and need to lead our regional partners today.
The first thing that we need to do is increase funding to upstream diversion programs. We are rehousing people, but more people continue to become displaced due to many factors including the rising cost of rents in the city. We must also build more low-income and middle income housing and low-income housing with wrap around services for people who have severe and chronic mental illness and/or severe and chronic addiction problems.
Our region’s response to homelessness is disjointed and embarrassing. If the head tax debacle hadn’t happened, the electeds might still be thinking their failed response is fine. Even now, their theory of change flow chart for solving it at the bureaucracy end is worrisome.
Homelessness is a symptom. The rate of homelessness nationally today is about 1% of our population or roughly 3 million people. Our region reflects that statistic. Worth noting is that 6 million Americans have bi-polar disorder and 3 million Americans have schizophrenia. Both of those disorders are often layered with addiction. 1 or 2 out of 10 people that use drugs (including alcohol) are at risk of serious addiction for both genetic and environmental reasons that we don’t fully understand yet. I would conclude from these statistics that our response should be at a 1% of population scale at this point.
While we’re still trying to understand it all and hopefully head upstream with the solutions, we have to provide supportive housing for the homeless. That might mean after they’re released from prison, jail, or psych facilities to the point where they are not a danger to society or themselves. Active addicts need to be incentivized to choose recovery in order to get more freedom and supportive housing. The housing cannot be overnight shelters, tiny houses, tents, or RVs, but instead permanent supportive housing. Some will be able to transition out and some won’t, depending on their afflictions.
That supportive housing must be geographically distributed across rural, suburban and urban areas in ratio with the populations. Right now, Seattle has over 70% of the unhoused population in King County, but only has 1/3 of King County’s population. Other jurisdictions are not providing services and facilities in ratio with their populations.
Interestingly, when I asked Jeanne Kohl-Welles what the rest of King County was doing, she didn’t know. Three months later, she still doesn’t know. Dow doesn’t know either. They haven’t been keeping track. Jeanne said that since Seattle is the seat of King County government, it makes sense that we have all those services and facilities downtown, but I don’t think that makes sense at all. For instance, if needle exchanges are the solution – which of course they’re great at stemming the spread of communicable diseases – then all of the county should have them. We need an HQ2, not more concentration of services and facilities in Seattle, especially not downtown. There should be a moratorium on that location. Claudia Balducci said that they don’t want their own Pioneer Square over in East King County. I would argue that I don’t want it either, so what else are they doing? Nothing it turns out.
With 1% of the nation homeless, then every jurisdiction must be participating in the solution. Seattle has 2500 supportive housing units. We probably need another 5,000 and King County probably needs 13,000 units. Within Seattle, each City Council District has 100,000 residents. To me, that means that each district needs 1,000 units of supportive housing. Opting out can’t be an option. We have to all in.
This problem will not be solved downstream alone. When we shift our focus to upstream on this issue, we’ll need a lot fewer supportive housing units downstream.
That said, we’ll need to establish some kind of humane recovery villages to transition folks from homelessness. Those need to be geographically distributed, too. We need to find out who everyone is, what their obstacles are, and triage them to the support they need. The criminals need to be sifted out and dealt with separately in secure facilities. The mentally ill and addicted need to be supported to recover their lives to the maximum extent possible and we definitely need more small community-based residential psych facilities. Additionally, incarceration doesn’t need to be a concrete cell where a life is wasted away, it can be a recovery and life restoration process. We have to be bold in our aspirations and the funding of the solutions. That likely means redistributing the funding pies to much more effective programs.
In my estimation, the city should: 1) advocate for prevention; 2) quickly meet the immediate needs of each and every community member who ‘falls down;’ and 3) ensure that those who have ‘fallen down’ get back on the road to reestablishing their dignity and self-sufficiency.
In a truly well-functioning civic environment, homelessness should rare, brief, and one-time. The shame, degradation, humiliation, and embarrassment should be enough to ensure that personal behavior is changed to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. The shame, degradation, humiliation, and embarrassment are, indeed, humane and compassionate. To buffer people from these feelings and emotions is to deny them the human dignity and strength to prevent its recurrence.
By prevention, the city can remove barriers to developers so that building low-income, inexpensive housing is once again economically feasible. This will relieve demand and price pressure on existing housing stock. Further, it is entirely within the duty of the city to advocate for lifestyle choices that reduce housing costs – finding roommates and housemates, reducing non-housing personal expense, personal/household budgeting, seeking higher-paying work, moving to lower-cost housing, and simply asking for a reduction in price of housing. These measures work. And, they result in individuals and their families realizing the dignity of choosing a path to a higher bottom line. Not a single one of us is owed government/public financed lifestyles that are unsustainable. As a member of the Seattle city council, I will be vocal about that.
Quickly meeting the immediate news of each homeless person means offering them a clean and safe public triage center where qualified professionals can render appropriate care and services. The housing arrangement would be partly communal and partly private – community food/kitchen and laundry – private (with roommates) room and shower. This arrangement would be temporary. The homeless do need to be pointed by the state toward permanent housing, dignity, and self-sufficiency.
Getting the recently homeless back on the road to dignity, permanent housing, and self-sufficiency means incentivizing employment, life skills instruction, fostering community among those temporarily housed as noted above. Having a community and developing relationships improves anyone’s chances of staying out of homelessness.
I generally advocate for a more hands-off approach, even with the city council, the government body closest to the people. However, when people break and fall down for whatever reason, it behooves the state to take action to restore (NOT store) each down-and-outer to the community standard of dignity and self-sufficient, contributing citizenship. The current city council and some non-for-profits have failed spectacularly in accomplishing this. For all our money they’ve spent on this problem, it just keeps getting worse.