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Seattle’s oldest emergency

Seattle has faced four civil emergencies this year, with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to rage, the protest movement on systemic racism, and most recently the cracked West Seattle Bridge.

But Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis says he likes to remind his colleagues that the city’s longest running emergency is homelessness, with a state of emergency issued in 2015.

“We forget that the original one and one that continues to be ongoing and just has a horrible impact that drags everything else down is just the massive chronic homelessness on the streets of the city of Seattle,” said Lewis, who chairs the council’s Select Committee on Homelessness and Housing Affordability.

King County’s annual point-in-time count continues to show a persistent homelessness crisis with 11,751 individuals experiencing homelessness on one night in late January, a 5% increase from last year but still below the 12,112 counted in 2018. Among those, 53% were sheltered and 47% unsheltered, the same as 2017 and 2019.

On a more optimistic note, homelessness among veterans and young people continues to go down. The count found 955 youth and young adults were experiencing homelessness, down from over 1,500 in 2018. The homeless veteran population has declined every year since 2017 when there were over 1,300 counted. This year, 813 veterans experiencing homelessness were counted.

The count attempts to give an estimate of how many people are experiencing homelessness on a given night based on several sources, including shelters and surveys The data has faced criticism for not being the most accurate metric of local homelessness. Downtown Emergency Services Center executive director Daniel Malone compared the count to counting COVID-19 cases, saying officials only know who has the virus among those who have been tested.

“So I guess there’s some similarities with homelessness there, which is that we know the number of people experiencing homelessness who are using services, but we don’t know with really strong accuracy the people experiencing homelessness who aren’t,” Malone said.

The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness in the county are in Seattle, with other pockets in the southwest and east parts of the county.

The count shows a continued disproportionate impact of homelessness among people of color. For example, Black people make up 7% of the county’s population but a quarter of those experiencing homelessness. This does mark a lower percentage of Black individuals in the count than in the last three years. Even more stark, however, is the state of homelessness among the county’s Native population, going up from 10% to 15% of the count since 2019. This is despite Native people making up less than 1% of the county’s population.

Jeff Wolcott, the executive director for Community Lunch on Capitol Hill, says this disproportionate impact holds true for his clients at Central Lutheran Church and All Pilgrims Christian Church despite seeing patrons cut in half during the pandemic.

“There’s some systemic and fundamental things that we’re going to have to do as a society and, as of yet, I don’t see it,” Wolcott told CHS, citing affordable health care and mental health care. “I wish I could see it, but I just don’t. We’re not making a lot of headspeed towards there.”

Lewis and others have pointed to the Third Door Coalition, a group of proponents of taxing big business and local business leaders, as offering a possible solution to the homelessness crisis. The group announced in May a five-year proposal to build 6,500 permanent supportive housing units at a cost of $1.676 billion, with money coming from the state, county, business leaders, and cities. The coalition includes such business owners as Matt Galvin of Pagliacci Pizza and Chad Mackay of El Gaucho.

Lewis applauded the passage of the JumpStart payroll tax recently passed by the council as a good step toward addressing the problem. The levy is expected to raise at least $214 million annually, with much of that money first going toward replenishing the city’s emergency reserves used to deal with the pandemic and preserving city services for low-income and homeless residents.

After 2021, however, the council passed this week a roadmap of where that money will go, intending to spend over 60% on low-income housing, affordable homeownership programs, and a “community driven fund to invest in projects that affirmatively further fair housing and to address past discriminatory policies and practices,” according to a council memo. Another 9%, or $20 million, would be spent each year in 2022 and beyond to fund Equitable Development Initiative projects.

Lewis also said he was looking at a capital gains tax proposal for the city and working with officials from the state Legislature to work on joint measures at both levels of government. And he noted that while possible money from the defunding of the Seattle Police Department could aid in the fight against homelessness, it won’t be a core part of the effort.

“I was under no illusion when I took office this year and took this committee that getting answers on homelessness was going to be easy or that it was going to be fast,” Lewis said. “And I was under no illusion that the problem was going to get better by doing nothing.”

“I’m not surprised to see the number go up. I think we clearly have a lot of work to do.”


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2 thoughts on “Seattle’s oldest emergency

  1. Imagine, 2000, city leaders get together to come up with a 10 and 20 year plan for the rapid growth of our city. Now in 2020, with 12,000+ people unhoused, and all city council can/want to do is blame Amazon and other companies not paying their fair share of taxes, and the taxes they pass to raise funds aren’t enough to cover the crisis. We need an income tax, we need businesses to pay higher taxes, we need businesses to be taxed based on the care and well-being of their employees. If we live in a society where citizens are taken care of, there will be more money in the pockets of people who spend money, that money will go into cash registers of businesses. What a world!

  2. Please share the number of people who have been housed in the last year, There are at least two shelters that have housed many many people, including with grants that prioritize people of color.

    What is hard is trying to get help for the person who cannot tolerate being in a shelter and lives outdoors.

    Fix the mental health care system,

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