When asked about the most important issues facing Council District 3, CHS readers have twice put homelessness near the top the list. Focus on the issue is well deserved: There has been a 21% increase in King County’s reported homeless population this year. The number of people camping along I-5 is also believed to be on the rise.
One comment in response to the CHS Council District 3 candidate forum earlier this month drew considerable attention for laying out solutions for addressing homelessness, specifically in Cal Anderson Park. But as many who work day-to-day on the issue will say, simple answers are few and far between.
“Causes for rise in homelessness in Seattle and in the nation at large are complicated and difficult to pinpoint,” said Katherine Jolly, spokesperson for the city’s Human Services Department. “In Seattle, the cost of housing has not kept pace with wages, this combined the with effects of the dismantling of mental health and substance abuse systems over the past 30 years contribute to the increases in homelessness. Any solution to the homelessness crisis in Seattle must take these issues into account.”
In this month’s online candidate forum, we asked District 3 contenders how each would distinguish themselves from their predecessors in addressing homelessness. Here’s what they said:
- As the former director of the Urban League, Pamela Banks said she would put to work her experience implementing jobs programs to cut back on the city’s homeless population.
- Morgan Beach put forward a linty of ideas, including integrating tent cities into residential areas, building a LGBTQ youth shelter, and creating a system to better track available shelter beds.
- Rod Hearne said he supported increased funding for housing-first programs “so it’s easier to provide the mental health, education and addiction recovery services.”
- Incumbent City Council member Kshama Sawant said she supports a major increase to the city’s human services budget, as laid out by the Seattle Human Services Coalition. She’s also backing an affordable housing proposal from at-large City Council candidate Jon Grant, who released his plan as a response to the report from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee.
Grant’s plan calls for 9,000 units of housing at 0-30% of AMI — 5,000 more than the HALA proposal — with 5,000 of those units reserved for homeless housing. He would pay for it through a fee on all new commercial and residential development. The HALA committee recommended a fee on commercial development, but was concerned that a fee on new residential development would be shot down in court.
Meanwhile, a national study from 2012 recently presented by the Committee to End Homelessness in King County showed that an increase of $100 in median rent corresponded to a 15% increase in the homeless population:
The study, published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, also named high population growth and low vacancy rates as factors for homelessness. The researchers looked at more than 300 cities and used federal data to arrive at their results.
“The problem is, I don’t think any of us know who to talk to about homeless issues in the park.”
Whatever plans move forward, its clear there’s plenty of room for improvement. As it enters its final year, the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County will fall short of meeting its ultimate goal. On the upside, the “housing first” strategy has created thousands of units of homeless housing and the Committee to End Homelessness recently ratified a four-year plan to continue those efforts. In the meantime, a complex array of city agencies are left to deal with complaints, warranted or not, about homeless individuals.
On Capitol Hill, those complaints are often directed towards Cal Anderson Park. “The problem is, I don’t think any of us know who to talk to about homeless issues in the park,” said Michael Wells, director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce.
Illegal encampments are one of the most noticeable manifestations of the city’s homeless crisis, but still don’t lend themselves to easy solutions. Drafted in 2008, the city’s Unauthorized Encampments Procedural Manual (PDF) details how various agencies should address homeless encampments, including encampments in city parks. When illegal camping is identified, the city’s human services department dispatches outreach workers to connect people with social services. Parks staff, including parks rangers, are there to remind campers that it is illegal to sleep in parks overnight and post 72-hour notices before camps are dismantled. Ultimately, police are responsible for enforcing the no encampment law — that is, if a minimum three-tent camp even exists. Police can also issue park exclusion notices, but the law was amended in 2012 after it was discovered that people of color were being disproportionately cited.
One solution is to expand the number of authorized tent sites, as Mayor Ed Murray has proposed. Murray’s office also announced in April that the Capitol Hill’s Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets would receive an additional $130,000 needed to operate as a year-long shelter.
Meanwhile, the Capitol Hill Community Council has launched a fundraiser to purchase goods for homeless in the neighborhood. Care packages will be distributed through Capitol Hill Community Lunch and YouthCare. The community council has already purchased items like socks, toothpaste, toothbrushes, Chapstick, and band aids. Donations are still needed by July 30th to buy underwear, tampons/pads, first aid supplies, foot powder, and more.
“As the seasons change, our community council will continue responding to homelessness and finding ways to support and address it’s impact in our neighborhood and the lives of our neighbors,” said community council president Zachary Pullin.