by Kelsey Hamlin
Sitting in the two hour-long joint meeting of the King County and Seattle City Councils, listening to them discuss housing and human services for the homeless was, well, nothing new. And perhaps my lack of motivation to write this piece is a testament to that. Nothing substantial was discussed. Nothing was surprising. No changes were made.
In May, King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw took a trip to San Francisco to visit the city’s Navigation Center. The experimental homeless shelter, contains dorm-like sleeping quarters, showers and bathrooms, laundry facilities, counseling offices, and a 24-hour dining room. It also allows pets and provides them with designated dwelling spaces and food.
At one point, Kohl-Welles called the visit a “field trip.”
It’s apparently our city’s next new model, and something I believe gave Bagshaw the inspiration last week to randomly speak up about the concept of public lockers for Seattle’s homeless to safely store their belongings.
Another aspect of the Navigation Center that might be mimicked locally is its lack of a sobriety requirement.
“That we know is critical,” Bagshaw said. “We are not doing a service to either the businesses, the residents, or the people who are trying to live in our city.”
She discussed how, at many homeless shelters, showers are scheduled at 6 or 7 a.m. People are then promptly pushed out onto the streets afterwards.
Last week, I attended a gathering on the same topic of addiction and homelessness — but that collaboration continuously included those directly impacted by these issues. There, Gina McConnell-Otten, who manages a church shelter, explained how she is forced to shove the homeless out the door every morning because the program can only afford to let them stay overnight.
A breakdown of grants and services received by the county and city and spent on homelessness appeared on a projection screen about halfway into the joint meeting. The total amount of money King County spends on housing services is about $91.4 million.
Mark Ellerbrook of the Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) noted that the area is an extremely successful applicant of the Continuum of Care fund, noting the county receives an excess of $30 million dollars from it.
“We have a long history of being an innovative region,” Ellerbrook said. “We’re also very successful because we have a lot of folks who are homeless.”
Seattle has the third highest homelessness rate in the U.S. behind only New York City and Los Angeles.
The Housing 8 Voucher was briefly mentioned, though there was no discussion about them not being accepted by a significant amount of Seattle rentals, with applications blatantly stating so. Although, apparently, the backlog for the vouchers are in the tens of thousands.
Data systems were yet again discussed. They tally just how many homeless people we currently have. It appeared we’ve been able to make a dent in the number of only one subgroup of the homeless population, veterans. Their number has been cut almost in half.
That being said, King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski voiced the opinion that “it’s a targeted group and has specific resource fundings…so we can get there to get the mission done.”
He does have a point. I mean, if there’s at least one easy thing the councils can actually get done, that should be one of them.
The discussion then turned to permanent supportive housing, transitional housing, and rapid re-housing. We’ve all been there, and know how each works. Bagshaw literally asked for a definition of each as if to educate the crowd. Eye rolls ensued.
The myriad problems Washington state has in handling those with mental health issues soon came up. Terry Mark, deputy director of DCHS, noted 8,500 people in King County were actually referred to professionals last year (but a fraction of the total people who were involved with the mental health system). Of those people, 62 percent were detained and caused a huge increase in involuntary treatment at a time when King County only has a total of 479 beds.
“A third of those in prisons have a mental health illness or have a traumatic brain injury,” commented State Representative Tana Senn. “So is it really a criminality issue we’re looking at, or is it more they need to get help for mental illness or a traumatic brain injury?”
Mark also briefly discussed heroin and opiate addiction, giving mention to the war on drugs and its impacts on racial disparities.
At the end of Mark’s presentation, King County Councilmember Larry Gossett — who looked as if he was battling the onset of a coma much like half the crowd — said of the opiate and heroin issue “there’s social focus because it’s mostly affecting white people… whereas most people of color are in jail for selling…and for things like weed. And we don’t see any reforms.”
A few public testimonies noted the difficulty for businesses to make a profit when they’re located near a homeless encampment.
Business owners, homeless people, people with disabilities, and advocates all testified.
A preschool teacher voiced that she was just one check away from being homeless herself and questioned how the city could afford to build a $160 million police bunker but not shore up their homeless programs.
Jimmy Haun of Northwest Carpenters noted that the county should be using the opportunity to stop using mini-housing built outside of the U.S. and instead have local businesses construct them. He also suggested an unsolicited idea to help the homeless.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have homeless people become educated and work and even build some units of their own?” he asked. “Transform their lives.” He noted that this project would restore a homeless person’s sense of dignity, make them feel proud for having accomplished something, and even give them an opportunity to get a job.
Kelsey Hamlin is an intern with South Seattle Emerald this summer, and has worked with various Seattle publications. Currently, Hamlin is the President of the UW Chapter’s Society of Professional Journalists, and will be starting an internship with KCTS 9 in July. She finished an internship with The Seattle Times in March as an Olympia legislative reporter, and is a journalism major at the University of Washington, planning to double-major in Law, Societies & Justice (currently her minor). See her other work here, or find her on twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin.