35 percent of teens who "age out" of the system wind up on the streets. Credit: Flickr: Angelo González
After eight years and millions of dollars spent on the ambitious 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, we still have roughly the same number of homeless men, women and children living on our streets.
The roughly 20,000 adults and children who experience homelessness each year in King County suffer in an extraordinary way. This year, 30 to 50 will die on the streets. Many will become victims of rape and other physical violence. Others will struggle with untreated health problems. Most will suffer the stigma our society attaches to homelessness, where the daily struggle for the basics of food and shelter stymie the potential for productive lives.
As a founding member of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County (CEHKC) and as someone who works closely with homeless men it’s clear we’ve reached an moment of decision: Will we get serious about ending street homelessness or not?
A confluence of events makes this a good time to ask that question. The 10-year plan, which called for building thousands of new housing units to quickly move people from homelessness to permanent housing, is at the end of its lifecycle. There are leadership vacancies at key local agencies (CEHKC and the Seattle Department of Human Services). Seattle’s mayor and some council members face re-election. The economy is reviving. It’s time to adjust our strategy and renew our efforts to end street homelessness.
1. Create a single point of entry into the homeless services system
Every time a homeless person comes to my church door asking for help, which is often, I have to explain the labyrinth of our shelter system. Try this agency at 9 a.m. This one after 5:30 p.m. Don’t forget your referral slip. Seattle’s homeless must learn when and how to shuttle between agencies from SODO to First Hill, downtown, Belltown and SLU. On days when the shelters are full, latecomers get sent out on the streets with a blanket and a pat on the back. We need one intake center, at a single location, with extended hours so that homeless people don’t need a map, a bus pass and a Ouija Board to find shelter for the night. This “intake center” should be open seven days a week and in the evenings for the many homeless people who work, and should include staffers from agencies such as DSHS and the VA.
2. Lower the bar for transitional housing
The 10-Year Plan tried to move people from shelter to transitional and permanent housing as quickly as possible by building as many new housing units as we could. But the building couldn’t keep up with the demand, which meant that people stay in shelters for two or three years while they wait for subsidized housing. Instead, let’s subsidize motel rooms for those shelter residents, a strategy that worked for the Center City Initiative and the Nickelsville project. One bed in a well-run Seattle shelter can cost $10,000 a year. That’s $28 per night, which could help pay for a safe, comfortable motel room, and relieve some of the shelter-to-housing bottleneck. This happens in other major cities. Why not Seattle?
3. Create a semi-permanent indoor/outdoor shelter
Nickelsville and other tent cities lack adequate infrastructure, but they offer some attractive amenities: community, 24-hour access and the freedom to live with a partner or pet. Let’s set aside a parcel of public property, build some simple, inexpensive shelters with sanitation facilities. Portland has a version of this in its Dignity Village. The City of Seattle seems open to the idea as it works to find Nickelsville’s next steps. Surely, we can design a low-cost, low-hassle option for homeless people who don’t fit into the traditional shelter system.
4. Stop funding sub-standard shelter providers
Seattle has a dysfunctional relationship with SHARE, its major shelter provider. As the City’s least expensive shelter provider, SHARE is good for the bottom line. But SHARE still has relatively poor performance on statistical reporting and refuses to upgrade its services with important enhancements such as case management. Instead of skimping on shelter funding, the City should insist on – and pay for – case management and exclude any providers who can’t or won't offer it. I cringe when I have to refer someone to a SHARE shelter, where they can expect no services and no support. The City needs higher quality shelters. To get them city leaders have to spend some money – and political capital.
5. Recognize the difference between "home-free" and "homeless"
Some people do not want shelter or housing of any kind. They prefer to live “home-free” and shouldn’t be mistaken for vulnerable people who have no other choice. We need first to provide adequate shelter for those who need it. Only then, will our community earn the moral authority to discourage encampments by people who live outside as a lifestyle choice, at times endangering themselves and creating a public health nuisance.
To put any of these strategies in place we need a city council and mayor who make the moral and financial choice to help people in need by funding an adequate emergency shelter system. This means standing up to people who benefit from the status quo and those who fear homeless people in their neighborhoods. It means making tough funding choices that postpone other important civic projects. (The fact that the Seattle City Council quickly came up with $500,000 – a huge amount in public service dollars – to dismantle Nickelsville shows that there is money out there.)
There are 37 other municipalities in King County who send their homeless to Seattle for services that they do not provide. There are world-class philanthropic organizations in the city — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for one — that send billions to countries around the world, while tightly constraining funding for local homelessness in ways that miss the biggest chunks of our local needs.
There are some who say that homelessness can’t be solved. I disagree. With renewed commitment, rekindled compassion and a realignment of priorities we can, one day, be confident that, in Seattle, everyone will have a bed at night.