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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 18, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 12
A COMMENTARY ON HOMELESSNESS
Section One
ALL STORIES
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A COMMENTARY ON HOMELESSNESS

by Lisa Herbold
Seattle City Councilmember
Special to the SGN

A new harm reduction approach for people living unsheltered
The issue of homelessness has risen to the forefront of the local dialogue in the last year, leading local leadership to declare an unprecedented 'State of Emergency' to aid those living without shelter. There's no question we face a crisis, so, what steps can Seattle take, in the short-term, to help? The City is funding a new approach to address the impacts to people living in encampments and the communities where we find these encampments. It's a pretty low-tech service, and I hope you agree that it's common sense. But, first, here's some background:

Who are the people living unsheltered and where did they come from?
I often get this question from people who tell me they believe that homeless people move here seeking the services we have in Seattle. Yet, the data shows that people here who are homeless overwhelmingly come from this community. Approximately 87% of the homeless people in King County report their last known address in King County, and 97% are from Washington state. These are our neighbors.

Also, the idea that Seattle provides so many services that we are a magnet to homeless people must be questioned. In 2014, of about 50 cities, Seattle ranked 21st for providing shelter, with 30% of our homeless residents unsheltered. Boston, on the other hand, shelters 96.7% of their homeless residents.

The 2016 One Night Count revealed that King County has at least 4,505 men, women, and children sleeping outside or in cars without shelter. This number is an increase of 19% over last year's count. Further, South and Southwest King County areas report a 53% increase in people living unsheltered.

Homelessness in Seattle! How did it get this bad?
The reason that homelessness is increasing is linked to the rise in housing costs and stagnating wages. The Journal of Urban Affairs found that an increase of $100 in median rent corresponded to a 15 percent increase in the numbers of people who are homeless. Rent increases in Seattle are among the highest in the nation and you need a $27 an hour wage to afford an average apartment in Seattle. Although our local economy is in recovery, only the top 5% of earners have seen their wages rebound to pre-recession recovery.

In addition, Federal support dollars have evaporated in the last two decades. Comparing the 1999 budget to the 2016 budget reveals that Federal human services grants to Seattle have decreased 43%. 62% of the City's Human Services budget used to come from Federal funding and now it's only 26%.

The Mayor's declaration and the Council's support for a State of Emergency is designed to bring more resources to bear on the problem. Seattle cannot solve this emergency alone: federal assistance and support from the private market is critical.

Seattle, we have a problem. What to do?
The Homelessness State of Emergency is an opportunity to develop a new public health approach for those people living unsheltered. The City has 3 sanctioned encampments and 1 RV safe lot. However, there are about 171 unsanctioned encampment sites. 200 tents (approximately 400 people residing in them) were counted in the East Duwamish Greenbelt alone.

The City's policy for removal of these encampments is based on the hazards of the location, public safety issues in the area, and significant public health concerns. These factors are balanced with the availability of resources, and it means that many encampments will not be removed. And even if the City had the ability to remove all of the encampments, the City doesn't currently have resources to provide shelter for everyone living in encampments. This means we must address the serious impacts to people living in encampments and impacts to the communities where we find encampments. The failure to address these impacts is a clear gap in our response.

For this reason, I proposed and the Council passed an amendment to the State of Emergency spending plan to allocate $200,000 specifically to address the impacts to communities and individuals that arise when people live outside.

These funds are to 'remedy conditions directly associated with unsanctioned camping' and can pay for hand-washing stations; portable toilets and showers; containers for disposing of used needles with collection service; and trash collection service.

Following the Council's vote, I met with the Human Services Department, Seattle Public Utilities, the Mayor's Office, and REACH (the provider that does outreach to individuals living outside) to discuss how to develop and implement this new approach. My first priority in the short term is to provide for garbage collection and sharps containers collection service. All parties agreed that it would be most practical to begin a new collection service to pick up the garbage bags that REACH distributes to persons camping in unsanctioned places as part of their outreach. Similarly, outreach workers currently distribute sharps containers. Seattle Public Utilities will soon be able to pick them up, too. This means safer and cleaner places for everyone. The second priority for these funds will be to explore mobile washing stations and toilets like those used in San Francisco.

$200,000 to pick up garbage you say?
A back of the envelope calculation tells me that we might be able to pay for staff and trucks and gas to visit encampments about twice a week to pick up garbage and sharps for an entire year. This will help address the very real public health threats to individuals and communities while we work to bring people inside.

This is something the City has never done before. I hope - in addressing the cleanliness of these encampments - it can shift the conversation from urging that we shut down all encampments immediately, without regard for the lack of places for people to sleep, to how our encampment response can be focused on the needs of people living there and support efforts to help these people access limited shelter and housing options.

For more information about who is homeless, see this infographic: http://allhomekc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/AllHomeInfographicFull.png

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