By now, compassionate Seattle residents know what they want from the city’s response to homelessness: Safe, decent shelter and stable housing for unhoused neighbors. Clean parks where everyone feels welcome. Help for people in crisis. Streets and neighborhoods free of vandalism, harassment and threat of physical harm.
There’s nothing inherently contradictory about the items on this wish list. And it’s not a big ask of a municipal government, especially not in a smart, wealthy city like Seattle. So it’s understandable that folks are frustrated as city leaders spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a problem that only seems to grow.
Leadership matters. Voters have a chance to set a new course in November as they select a new mayor, two citywide council positions and a city attorney. The differences between candidates in each of those races are stark.
Both mayoral candidates vow to work quickly to get people into shelter. But their strategies quickly diverge. Bruce Harrell, who received the Times editorial board’s endorsement, also said he’d work to clean up public spaces and identify those that are “incompatible with encampments.” M. Lorena González’s plan is much more diffuse, including sweeping changes like rent control and taxing the rich.
In the latest Crosscut/Elway Poll, 79% of likely Seattle voters said homelessness was important in their choice for Seattle elections. After years of public discussion and experience, many are well-versed in the complexities of this humanitarian disaster and exasperated by the city’s struggles to translate that nuanced understanding of the problem into effective action. Instead, we get snafus like the crisis response failure down in Pioneer Square, which Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote about last Wednesday. Increasingly people apparently suffering from mental illness or drug addiction have become a routine occurrence, and police or crisis teams are not available to respond.
While Harrell does not support defunding the police, González says that if she’s elected, she might support a funding cut of 50% or more.
It’s also no secret that while the overall homelessness emergency is complicated, there are people sleeping rough who would go into shelter today if given the chance.
I met a man this summer who said he’d tried to find room in each of the new hotel shelters, but they were full before he got there. He had been living outside for four years before anyone offered to help him, he said. Even then, it wasn’t a paid outreach worker, just an everyday person. Ad hoc and disjointed efforts to bring people inside appear to be driven by what’s on fire at a given moment. The Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, said something striking at a recent meeting: “We’ve often said, well, if you really want to get shelter, go to a site that’s in the headlines and they’ll offer you shelter because otherwise it’s very hard to find.”
That’s just the beginning. There’s an even bigger bottleneck from shelter to housing. I could go on, but you already likely know the rest. We’ve dissected the problem nearly to death. What’s missing is an actionable plan.
Before year’s end, the City of Seattle expects to turn over no fewer than 124 contracts with providers of homelessness prevention, outreach, shelter and housing services to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. The new agency is intended to make sense of this hodgepodge, eliminate redundancies, fill gaps and make the best use of public resources. Still, Seattle leaders will have much to do in the fight to make homelessness brief and rare.
Today, mayoral candidates Bruce Harrell and M. Lorena González explain their plans for action. On Tuesday, we will publish responses from candidates for Seattle City Council Position 9 and on Wednesday for Position 8.
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