A small crowd gathered in the Broadway Performance Hall Thursday night for a forum on homelessness hosted by the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce as the crisis continues to grow.
Representatives from a number of organizations looking to aid people who are homeless, including the REACH program, the Seattle Police Department’s Navigation Team, and the Unsheltered Crisis Response Team, discussed the strategies they’re currently utilizing, while attendees wanted answers as to why an issue that’s been declared a citywide emergency for three years isn’t getting better.
With 12,112 homeless people counted in last year’s point-in-time count, the sixth year in a row the numbers increased, King County continues to be the epicenter of the crisis. Washington, the 13th largest state in America, had the fifth largest homeless population of any state, according to federal data.
15 Things CHS heard at the forum
- One of the top concerns of both the panelists and attendees was that organizations don’t have enough money to run their organizations in the most efficient way possible. “Clearly there aren’t enough resources in the city; none of you have enough resources to do your job as well as you would like for it to be done,” one man said. “Clearly the city doesn’t really view it as an emergency. They just want to say it’s an emergency, but they haven’t put the money behind it.”
- Logan Bowers, who is challenging Kshama Sawant to represent Capitol Hill and District 3 at City Hall, echoed this point, telling CHS after the panel “the work that the folks are doing to reach out to our unhoused neighbors and get them services is absolutely phenomenal, and it’s clearly not enough,” and adding later: “We funded a cut-rate system and we got a cut-rate system.”
- Meanwhile, another D3 challenger, Orion, who is the executive director of the Chamber and emceed the event, applauded the passage of the mayor’s budget, which funded bringing homeless outreach workers back to Capitol Hill: “We were thrilled.”
- Brenda Frazier, who supervises the REACH program chosen to fulfill a portion of the new outreach effort, described how the approximately 23-year-old organization, which now has about 80 case managers, functions. The workers develop relationships, get to know the people on the ground, and connect them with resources, such as housing and medical help. For example, if they don’t have identification, they take them to the Department of License to figure that out.
- The city’s Navigation Team’s encampment response manager, August Drake-Ericson, said her team receives about 400 complaints per week. She said they reach out to as many as 12 large sites per month. “We know that we’re addressing pittance of what needs to be addressed in the city.”
- SPD Lt. Sina Ebinger, who says there are over 300 encampments in the city, talked about the tough role officers have to play in trying to help people that are homeless and acting as much as a social worker as a cop. “It is a very tough role for the police officer,” she said. “It’s every day seeing what you have to see out there.” She said she still enjoys her job after 19 years, adding “I’m loyal to the police department, I’m loyal to the mission.”
- Ebinger told attendees they could report an encampment by calling 684-CITY or by using the Find It, Fix It smartphone app, but if there’s a crime in process, she urges people to call 911.
- Multiple panelists noted that the city and the state continues to lag behind in dealing with the mental health aspect of the homelessness crisis. Jackie St. Louis, director of the Unsheltered Crisis Response Team, said “on demand resources are largely unavailable” and “the people doing the work are the worst compensated.” It’s no secret that Washington faces a workforce shortage in the behavioral health field.
- Cathy Hillenbrand, who who was instrumental in the 20-year process to bring a planned 428 residential units – 41% of which (176 units) will be designated affordable housing – to the Capitol Hill Station development, brainstormed different ways to help people struggling with homelessness, including paying them to pick up their own garbage: “What if there was some other approach to these encampments.”
- When asked by Orion for one thing working well in response to the homelessness crisis, Drake-Ericson couldn’t think of anything working extremely well, but noted that communication between departments has been improving, specifically between police and human services, which makes the job easier.
- St. Louis noted that the system of using low-income apartment tenancy as an end goal is perpetuating generations of poverty, and the work needs to continue beyond that. David Mooney, who used to be homeless and said it took him five years to get through a waitlist to transition from temporary supportive housing to permanent supportive housing, said that gap is “a recipe for failure.”
- Drake-Ericson said that the reason they decide to clear sidewalks of unsheltered people is to primarily provide outreach. She said, “That’s our main goal is to give an opportunity for people to accept shelter.” There also health risks to campers and Seattle more broadly.
- When asked what he would consider a success three years from now, St. Louis, of the Unsheltered Crisis Response Team, said “I hope that within three years we’ll have understood the population, which I don’t think we do right now, and we would’ve created a system that responds to that.” He added: “I think we need to be more targeted in our approach.”
- Along those same lines, St. Louis said that the mayor’s office is currently working with Microsoft to build a new platform for data collection that is more comprehensive than the current database in a private-public partnership.
- One woman who said she was new to Seattle, asked the speakers where she could go to help people who are homeless. One panelist said she could volunteer at the Recovery Cafe, while Orion added Community Lunch on Capitol Hill, which is located on 11th Ave E. “They just have to believe you care, that’s it,” Mooney said.
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