Over the last few weeks I’ve spent countless hours in schools, board rooms, and community centers, at dinner tables, on stages, and over drinks, talking about the crisis of homelessness. More importantly I’ve listened carefully to the questions, myths, fears, and ideas coming from our community. I’m frustrated by the toxic behavior of some, optimistic that people are engaged, and motivated to pull this community together for the thousands of adults, children, students, veterans, seniors, parents -- our neighbors -- who will sleep rough tonight.
I’ve talked about this crisis with people who have a lot of money, a little bit of money, and many who have none at all.
I’ve listened to people experiencing homelessness and people working every day to house our homeless neighbors.
I’ve talked with longtime advocates and people who want to join the movement, disrupt the movement, or kill the movement.
I’ve listened to people who wish the problem would “just go away” and people want to help but don't have any idea what to do.
I’ve debated people who are convinced we are wasting money because the problem just keeps getting worse and with people who think there is no path forward.
And I’ve spoken with plenty of people who think they have a solution or are convinced they know who is to blame because they read one report, saw a couple articles, or just think they are really smart.
Everyone wants to know:
· Why is it so bad? The lack of affordable housing, a terrible mental health system in Washington, racism. And too few shelter beds.
· Is anyone doing anything about it? Yes and it would be much worse if we didn't shelter 5,000 people per night or house 6,000 last year.
· Who do we hold accountable? This is where we are failing. There is no one entity or person. It's on all of us.
· What will it take to really fix it? Leadership, money, housing, policy change.
People are homelessness because they have exhausted all of their options. They can’t afford rent because it’s too damn high. They may have lost a job or had a medical emergency. Some are feeling domestic violence, other struggling with addiction. Regardless of why, they deserve better than a tent or a vehicle or a mat on the floor.
As I’ve shared the data about the causes of and solutions to homelessness, I have been met with everything from skepticism to relief to a motivation to act. Most people don’t hate the homeless – though local social media sites may tell a different story - they are sick of telling their kids why people are living in tents, frustrated by the garbage and lack of sanitation, and fed up with having to face the crisis where they live, work, and play.
But it is far worse for the 12,000 people who experience homelessness on any given day. Homelessness is one of the most deeply traumatic, unjust, and dehumanizing experiences. You are stepped over, avoided, criticized, and too often in harm’s way.
People are dying on our streets, but we're talking in circles because it's easier to talk than act. We have to get it together.
Here’s a few of the things that we need to do:
- Leadership. Our leaders aren't doing much leading on this crisis. We lack a person and entity with the authority, power, influence, and vision to end homelessness. This is without a doubt a regional issue, but leadership needs to start somewhere. This goes beyond coordination and playing nice. Its centralized finances, policy development, decision making, and communicating progress. It means being politically incorrect and saying that this will cost real money. Don’t like it – tough - because these are people’s lives. And holding all of us accountable for follow through and results.
- Bold Vision: The hotly debated McKinsey&Company report clearly articulates the need for a significant amount of new affordable housing. This is not rocket science – it’s what we’ve known but haven’t collectively communicated. Even now, really smart people don’t want to talk about the significant need for more housing but it’s the biggest need we have. It's type for philanthropy, government funders, business leaders, and advocates to team up and have brave conversations about the affordable housing crisis. That includes building the policies, plans, and funding to create solutions to our affordable housing crisis.
- People first: Programs and polices alone do not end homelessness. Good ones helps. Bad ones make things worse. We need to be responsive to where people are and what they need. This includes developing a strategy to address the increasing number of people living in their cars and making sure we are funding programs that help people of color who are disproportionally represented in the homeless population. It also means talking about housing every one - not just a specific target population.
- Communication about Successes: We are doing a lousy job of communicating the things that are working.
- Follow the data: We want all the data but far too often we only use it if it meets our needs. Let's make data informed decisions about where to spend money and do more of what works.
- Scale: We LOVE LOVE LOVE a pilot program. Something to test, refine, adapt. New ideas are good but when they work we need to take them to scale and that will cost money.
- Urgency – That homelessness crisis was declared in November of 2015. Since then we’ve had a lot of tables, convenings, meetings, task forces, committees, reports, false starts, and some progress. We need to go FASTER because lives are quite literally on the line.
Let’s Unite to End Homelessness
Now is not the time to retreat. The optimist in me says we cam use this moment in time to educate, organize, and act. Let’s build a campaign. Let’s mobilize those 18,000 + people who signed on to repeal the Head Tax– many who say that want to help and/or have been working on this issue for years. Let’s fill city hall meetings to demand more leadership and move HALA legislation forward. Let’s bring caravans to Olympia to advocate for real tax reform that could fund the housing, mental health, and crisis services we need. Let’s come together with a plan to shelter significantly more people today and remove the barriers to building thousands of affordable housing units in the region. Who is in?