Outside City Hall: Has anything changed since 2005 when we wrote this piece on the causes of homelessness?

OUTSIDE CITY HALL Vol X: JOHN V. FOX & CAROLEE COLTER – Originally printed May 2005 in Beacon Hill News and Capitol Hill Times 05/25/2005

Every day in King County over 50 social service agencies provide shelter and/or counseling to 2,500-3,000 homeless people. City and county governments fund these programs to the tune of over $20 million a year, not counting additional funding from United Way, churches and the private sector.

Nevertheless, the number of homeless on our streets has continued its relentless upward climb, greatly outpacing the capacity of this expanding service delivery system. Where 25 years ago there were few programs and a few hundred homeless on our streets (mostly in downtown Seattle), today estimates run as high as 8,000 homeless people county-wide on any given day.

A new effort, however, has recently emerged, boldly calling itself the committee to End Homelessness. Over two dozen social service agencies, church organizations, King County, the City of Seattle and United Way have combined forces and promised to guarantee “a roof over every bed” by 2014. The Committee has set up a website while the city and county have committed over $200,000 to staff the effort.

Countless meetings over the last two years have brought together dozens of human service providers, agency officials and community leaders. The list of participants reads like a Who’s Who of local electeds and agency heads.

The committee recently released a 52-page report calling for improved cooperation and better linkages between homeless programs and the public and private sector. The plan also calls for better data collection and tracking of homeless needs. It emphasizes the regional scope of homelessness, and calls on municipalities county-wide and private donors to do more.

A key provision of the plan urges the region to add 4,500 new low income housing units and acquire another 5,000 existing low-income units over the next decade.

These components of the committee’s plan are laudable. But in spite of its goal to “end homelessness, not manage it,” the plan is conspicuously lacking in programs and strategies that would attack the problem at its roots.

The committee to End Homelessness has not indicated where we are going to get the additional funding needed to secure 9,500 additional low-income units over the next 10 years. The report should have called on elected leaders county-wide to immediately identify new funding sources such as a region-wide housing levy, creation of a housing “growth fund” earmarking a portion of future county-wide tax revenues for housing, or better yet, use of impact fees so that developers share in the cost. Such sources are needed if only to compensate for planned deep cuts in federal housing programs, a threat the report fails to adequately highlight as well.

But even if these 9,500 units are created, unless we put controls on the loss of existing housing, for every one of those units that are secured, we will continue to lose three to four times that amount to the forces of gentrification and redevelopment.

Every year in Seattle alone, developers demolish over 500 low-income apartments to make way for office buildings, expensive condominiums and parking lots. Another 1,000 are sold to speculators who immediately raise rents above what low-income people can afford.

Our mayor and most of our city councilmembers have actively encouraged these trends by approving rezones and other land use changes that concentrate more growth precisely in the areas where our remaining low-income stock is located. This only accelerates the loss of existing units serving the poorest of the poor, with more homelessness the inevitable result.

While not directly involved in this current effort – call it task force fatigue – the Displacement Coalition has participated in numerous homeless and housing task forces and blue ribbon committees over the last 25 years. Most of these earlier efforts at least recognized the causal relationship between growing numbers of homeless on our streets and the continuing loss of low-income housing due to demolition, abandonment, conversion, and increased rents.

In contrast, perhaps to avoid treading on the feet of big corporate donors and those elected officials who might commit funding for its programs, the committee’s 10-year plan offers no solutions aimed at curbing developer actions that cause displacement.

Even more troubling, as we read through the lengthy report, is that it begins to look like a plan to institutionalize and further bureaucratize our response to homelessness. The emphasis of this report clearly is on adding new layers of ever more complex service delivery systems and identifying ever more sophisticated ways to track, categorize and process the homeless and to move them “seamlessly through a continuum of care,” whatever that means.

One would think that since this was a plan to end homelessness, it also would come with a timetable for phasing out the vast system of shelters and services only needed so long as the homeless remain a ubiquitous part of our landscape. Quite the contrary, the plan only refines and entrenches the system of service delivery.

For those immersed in the overwhelming task of delivering programs to the homeless, and inundated with more people than they are capable of serving, we can understand why they would want to focus so heavily on how to maintain, manage, and expand their programs. Indeed, until our elected leaders are willing to aggressively respond to the forces of gentrification and displacement in our community and other root causes like the absence of decent paying jobs or a progressive tax structure, this may be our only alternative.

Despite the well-intentioned efforts of a lot of good folks on the Committee to End Homelessness, they are caught in a Sisyphian quest – rolling that rock up a hill only to see it fall back down- where our only choice is to convene one more task force, revamp that system of service delivery one more time, and if possible expand it yet again, in an attempt to meet a need that always outpaces our ability to address it.

We can do better but it must start with a greater willingness on the part of all of us, including the service providers themselves, to demand real accountability from our leaders.

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About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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