Homelessness in the Seattle and King County Region is out of control. The rising cost of housing, limited affordable housing vacancies, widening income inequality, heroin epidemic, and impact of racism across our institutions has resulted in more than 4,505 people living on the street each night; thousands more are in our shelter and transitional housing programs. With no safe places to go, we are seeing a dramatic rise in people staying in tents, RV's, Car, doorways and other structures not meant for people to stay safe and warm.
Our Community has the opportunity to rally for change. So far our actions are disappointing.
And while there are many who are advocating for more resources and interventions- including an unprecedented call to action from Mayor Murray and Executive Constantine, we are seeing a massive NIMBY uprising that is fragmenting our community. I get it. No one wants trash, needles, and human waste in their neighborhood, around their kids, or in their parks.
But what about the families who have no place to go? Do they have fewer rights than I do as a resident of Queen Anne? Of course not.
What about the moms who, like my own, have struggled with addiction and depression, and can't find a consistent place to get healthy, rest their heads, and repair their lives? Don't they deserve better?
Quite simply we- our government, communities, families, systems - have failed these people. While service providers, philanthropy, and government funders do the heroic work of successfully housing thousands every year- thousands of newly homeless men, women, and families enter our system and our streets every year. We can't keep up with this demand for housing and emergency services because people are flooding into the system and we can't turn off the faucets that lead to homelessness. Or can we?
It is often said that ending homelessness is easier than ending poverty. It's true - you give people housing and they won't be homeless versus dealing with the complexities of multi-generational poverty. But right now, we don't have enough housing and we have more people living in poverty including51% of US School Children.
Poverty is a leading cause of homelessness but it's hard to predict who will become homeless so instead we wait until people are at the shelter, on the street, or on the doorstep of homelessness. Programs that divert people from shelter or Rapidly Rehouse families can effectively help folks who are on the doorstep but we aren't doing enough of it and for some it is too late.
If we don't accelerate efforts to address the cycle of poverty, people will continue to fall into homelessness.
So what do we do? Let me be clear - we need to fully focus on implementing the Homeless State of Emergency. Mayor Murray and KC Executive Constantine have shown strong leadership and commitment to resolving this issue but our entire community needs to rally together to support people in need. If we had an earthquake or some other disaster tomorrow we'd have a plan to rapidly house people and take care of immediate needs. Personally I believe we should engage FEMA, the Red Cross, Churches, and others to get people indoors tonight. From there we can triage people, connect them to resources (jobs, counseling, public benefits, a support network), resolve short term emergencies, and plan for long term supports.
The politics of ending homelessness in our region and across the country are complex and unwieldy. It's hard to get anyone to agree to anything without dozens of meetings, bickering, fingerprinting, and political maneuvering. As a result, we miss the opportunity for innovation, movement building, rapid response and upstream thinking. This is not because people don't care . They do care - A LOT. But we treat the problem with a scarcity mindset - too little resources, too little data, and too little time.
While others continue to figure out how to address the unsheltered problem I think we need abig movement to prevent people from becoming homeless. A renewed commitment to addressing poverty and building assets. Let's tackle the crisis and the cause - I believe a community with the time, talents, and treasure of ours can tackle both. I don't think we have a choice.
Here are ten things we can do this year to address poverty and stop the flood of people becoming homeless.
- Adequately invest in programs that divert people from homelessness with flexible funds to help people immediately resolve their housing crisis.
- Enhance and accelerate education and employment programs that lead to living wage jobs. Unemployment is low and many companies have positions - we need to connect our vulnerable families to those jobs. If they need short term training - with supports for transportation, childcare, food, and housing - the Basic Food Employment & Training program is a great tool.
- Ensure low income families are connected to the public benefits and income supports they are eligible for. Benefits and tax credits can help double a families monthly income, allowing them to stretch their budgets and pay for housing, food, and basic needs.
- Provide high quality financial coaching to people in housing and employment programs to help them plan for the future.
- Help low income families build savings and assets. Without them families can't withstand a financial shock - like a car repair or medical emergency. We must help families create a financial cushion that they can pull from when times get tough.
- Work on policy changes to prevent hospitals and justice systems from discharging people into homelessness.
- Create a coordinated and responsive system for eviction prevention, foreclosure prevention, and flexible assistance dollars.
- Utilize schools and other systems to help identify unstable families families before they become homeless.
- Invest in drug treatment programs. We need dollars to treat addiction - the streets will not do that.
- Engage unlikely people - business leaders, entrepreneurs, faith communities, grassroots organizations, and people living impacted by poverty to generate new ideas for addressing poverty and income inequality.
As we do more to address poverty we should ensure that we address the racial inequities that continue the cycle of poverty and homelessness.
We have a homeless and housing crisis today. If we don't address poverty it will continue to grow. Got ideas? Send them my way.