Why efforts to reduce homelessness in Seattle have fallen short

Leaders in the fight against homelessness discuss how to address the crisis through introspection, lived expertise and an approach oriented toward dignity and healing.

Josh Cohen speaks to Marc Dones, Karen Salinas and LaMont Green in a Crosscut Festival panel.

Reporter Josh Cohen speaks about homelessness with Crosscut Festival panelists Marc Dones, Karen Salinas and LaMont Green. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Local leaders in the fight against homelessness want to make sure the conversation doesn’t stop at housing. 

In the Crosscut Festival’s “We Are All Homeless” panel on Tuesday, three King County community advocates dug into the issue, which in 2020 impacted an estimated 40,800 people across the region. The speakers described homelessness as a phenomenon that needs to be contextualized with deeper systemic issues like racism, ableism and education access.

People have been institutionalized by their addictions and incarceration, said Karen Salinas, director of outreach at REACH, which connects those experiencing homelessness to resources, including food, medical care and substance use treatment. 

“That’s not going to just go away when you say, ‘I have the perfect spot for you you’ve always dreamt of,’ ” she said.

The problem goes far beyond housing. People must also think more deeply about who has access to good public schools, green spaces and a connection to their cultures, Salinas said. 

The panelists agreed that an issue like homelessness cannot be successfully tackled unless those who have personal experience get a say in the solution. That’s what the newly founded King County Regional Homelessness Authority aims to do. 

“There are things that I know, that are tactical in nature, that I learned in those places nobody wants to be,” said Marc Dones, CEO of the agency. “I know how to design a program that is oriented towards dignity and healing because I’ve been in the thing that doesn’t do that."

VIDEO: Rewatch the full Crosscut Festival discussion, “We Are All Homeless,” here.

Confronting homelessness will also require people to look more critically inward at their own prejudices toward others, according to LaMont Green, CEO of the Racial Equity Action Lab, who believes the magnitude of homelessness boils down to our social norms. 

“What are the biases and stigmas that we hold about people living homeless?” Green said. “About these mostly Black, brown and Indigenous people, these disabled people? We don’t want to go to the dark place of what we think about that population.”

Homelessness disproportionately affects people and households of color, according to 2022 data shared on the King County Regional Homelessness Authority's website. 

The issue of homelessness must be collectively addressed not just by the government, but across the board. Green urged people to look more seriously at the ways “nice, progressive, liberal racism” shows up in the region.

“A lot of our unhoused neighbors are carrying an immense amount of pain and trauma,” said Green, who personally experienced homelessness and addiction. “And most are the victims of racism, ableism, cisgenderism, transphobia. And we forget that in our compassion fatigue. We want to have our beautiful sidewalks and our beautiful parks. Let’s just sweep them away because we want our neighborhoods back.” 

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