City Hall must stop harassing homeless campers and learn to help them
By George Howland Jr
Here’s the big news out of the 2017 One Night Count of the homeless: illegal encampments will continue. It’s a simple problem of numbers: too many homeless people and too little money to help and house them. Instead of harassing homeless campers, City Hall needs to figure out how to make the best of this tragic situation.
The first number: the best estimate of the number of homeless people in Seattle is 8,522. That figure comes from the chart on page 9 of All Home’s 2017 Count Us In report. Of those, 3,857 are living outside and 4,665 are living in shelters, safe havens and transitional housing.
The estimated cost of building a new studio apartment of affordable housing in Seattle is $250,000 (more for larger units). To build all of Seattle’s homeless persons an apartment would cost over $2 billion dollars. The city does not have that kind of money. The entire city’s general-fund budget is $1.2 billion. And it’s not like the city can stop paving streets, operating libraries, maintaining parks and paying police officers and firefighters.
There are other ideas about housing the homeless—rapid re-housing, 24/7 shelters, tent cities, tiny houses—but all of them are financially untenable for Seattle because of the sheer numbers of homeless people.
The state Legislature can’t even figure out how to fully fund K-12 education and, therefor, has been in contempt of the state Supreme Court for two years running. It isn’t going to do anything more than it’s already doing for homelessness, which is woefully inadequate.
Donald Trump and the Republican Congress won’t increase appropriations for low-income housing–they’re too busy trying to figure out how to deny sanctuary cities, like Seattle, any money at all.
There is no indication that the size of our homeless population will shrink anytime soon. We are experiencing unprecedented growth due our white-hot economy. One of the consequences of our latest boom is that rents keep increasing–and that means more people can’t pay and find themselves homeless.
People argue over how to fix the housing crisis. Market urbanists say eliminate or alter single-family zoning, free up developers and build, build, build. Housing advocates say protect existing market-rate, low-income housing and manage growth better. Socialists say enact rent control and build thousands of units of public housing. Reactionary neighborhoods activists say buy homeless people one-way bus tickets out of town.
This grand civic argument shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
City Hall fails basic math
Mayor Ed Murray and the city council have taken a gradualist approach by mandating fees for affordable housing on new development. This housing, however, won’t necessarily serve the homeless; it may turn out that a lot of will go for homes for working-class people. The fees are small, 2.1 percent–9 percent, so it’s not clear how much money they will generate. In addition, the fees will be challenged in court and it’s not certain that city hall will win.
Murray, who is leaving office in December, has a plan (Pathways Home) to make homeless services more efficient and effective. The city now spends nearly $50 million annually on helping homeless people. Will the next mayor stick with Murray’s plan? Probably not, politicians generally hate using a predecessor’s policies. Will the plan work as well as advertised? That’s highly doubtful because government is not good at efficiency and effectiveness. And, absolutely for certain, Pathways Home is not going to house anywhere near 8,522 people.
So, what are people who have little money and nowhere to live going to do? The 2017 One Night Count reports about 20 percent live in their cars; another 13 percent set up tents on the sidewalks and in the parks and greenbelts; 1 percent squat; and the most desperate, 13 percent, just lie down on the cold, hard ground somewhere. The One Night Count doesn’t report what the other 44 percent do.
Mayor Murray’s response to homeless campers has been threefold. First: move the homeless from place to place. In the case of car campers, the city goes as far as impounding people’s homes for violating parking laws. In the case of encampments, our homeless neighbors are scattered when their campsites are swept. This has resulted in homeless campers losing their possessions and experiencing more trauma and suffering. The on-the-ground reality of these policies is atrocious, as the city fails to follow its own rules to protect the rights of homeless people. Second, Murray has opened three new official encampments, which can have a total of 210 residents. Third, he promises to add 100 new shelter beds. Does the mayor’s office have a problem with basic math? This plan helps 310 people, which is great, but what about the other 3,547?
Encampments, car camping and living outside are facts of life in Seattle. City Hall must figure out how to best accommodate this reality.
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Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. He is not a member of Seattle Displacement Coalition and no part of his writing serves as a statement of the Coalition’s views. He works under his own editorial direction. The Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy. He has never even been to a Huskies’ football game with the Coalition’s John Fox.