Punishing Shelter Providers Won’t Solve Seattle’s Homelessness Crisis

by Kayla Blau

There have been rumblings that the City of Seattle may fine local shelters that don’t move enough clients into permanent housing. When it comes to homelessness in Seattle (which has one of the most expensive rents in the nation), our city leadership must have better solutions than charging struggling nonprofits that are working diligently to house clients in a city with no available affordable housing.

As rents continue to rise, low-income families are left with no available housing options, especially if there are other barriers to housing, such as having low credit scores, past evictions, or criminal records. The city has the power to allocate funds to building more affordable housing, creating laws for rent control, and mandating low-barrier housing solutions. Instead, their newest plan is to fine organizations working tirelessly to find housing for struggling families.

The City’s Human Services Department stated they are analyzing recent performance measures, and that is why they will fine nonprofits for not meeting performance goals. But where is the self-accountability from the city for wasting over $10 million on “homeless sweeps?” How did we get here?

Back in 2016, the city hired a national homelessness consultant, Barbara Poppe, to provide recommendations on how to end homelessness in Seattle. The City of Seattle paid her a whopping $102,000 for her recommendations, spending money that could have been allocated towards housing vulnerable community members sleeping outside. It should be noted that Poppe has no ties to the Seattle community, nor any apparent knowledge of Seattle’s complex, discriminatory housing history and current affordability crisis.

Throughout the report, Poppe continuously blames service providers for not housing clients within a 30-day shelter stay and went so far as to say shelter workers are “not oriented to successfully help households identify immediate housing solutions.”

From my experience, shelter workers and clients are very familiar with their housing needs and solutions. There are simply not enough resources nor affordable housing options to meet those needs. For domestic violence survivors fleeing abuse, it is virtually impossible to obtain Protection Orders, find safe employment, situate children in school and childcare, and get approved for an apartment in thirty days, especially when there are little to no family-oriented housing in Seattle for less than $1,000 per month. Poppe continued to blame shelters for not meeting unrealistic funding goals and called for funding to be pulled for shelters that do not help a certain amount of clients move into permanent housing.

Closing down shelters for not meeting unrealistic goals will not solve homelessness. Placing blame on individuals and families that have experienced severe trauma that led them to be houseless will not solve homelessness. Neither will blaming the shelter staff. Instead, let us get real with each other about the root causes of homelessness: capitalism, racism, and intergenerational poverty. Let us consult with people with lived experiences of homelessness and housing discrimination and craft affordable, low-barrier housing solutions specific to Seattle.

Wealthy white folks who have never been homeless do not know how to get out of this mess. If they did, we would have had effective solutions a long time ago. In a city with so much wealth, it is disheartening to say the least that vulnerable community members and children are still sleeping outside while “experts” point fingers and place blame.

In the words of a 9-year-old currently experiencing homelessness, “My mom said all the houses are too expensive. There’s a lot of houses though. And apartments! Why don’t they make them cheaper?”

Sounds to me like the expert has spoken.