OPINION: Seattle Must Stop the Sweeps and Build Tiny House Villages

By Reverend Angela Ying

How can Seattle have gone so wrong and become a city of people “sweeps?” The word calls to mind clean cities, such as Vancouver, Canada, and Toronto, Canada –– except sweeping is what they do to garbage. 

People are not garbage.

Seattle’s sweeps cost more than $8 million per year and has no proven track record of getting people into permanent housing.

Conversely, another Seattle program, tiny house villages, has quietly and humanely moved 500 people living on the streets into permanent housing over the last three years. Last year, this program cost roughly $3 million.

We should clearly fund the tiny house villages. Communities of neighbors living in 8-by 12-foot tiny houses provide shelter and safety for people without a home. Our faith communities have been involved in the construction of many of them, as they are simple and rapidly built. They include heat, electricity, insulation, and locking doors. The average tiny house costs $2,700.

Built in community groupings on vacant lots, tiny house villages have common kitchen and dining areas, laundry, showers, washrooms, vital services, community resources, and access to education, jobs, daycare, transportation, and healthcare. They keep our neighbors –– men, women, and yes, their children –– safe.

They are not permanent homes. According to the city’s Human Services Department, the tiny house village program is the most successful shelter program in the city for moving people from the streets into permanent housing.

There are currently nine tiny house villages in Seattle. Forty-three faith leaders and our faith communities recently signed a letter supporting our City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s call to expand funding for up to 20 more tiny house villages in 2020.

And what about that other program? Mayor Durkan’s “sweeps” program pushes people struggling to survive from one undesirable location to another.

Numerous residents of the villages who have experienced both programs first-hand describe sweeps as demoralizing and devastating to all people involved. Sweeps dehumanize those who are swept as well as those who implement the sweeps. Sweeping is for refuse, not for living, breathing, loving human beings.

My community visits and provides food, clothing, blankets, friendship, and a sense of human dignity to those who find themselves homeless. My Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh colleagues, all leaders of faith, and their synagogues, churches, mosques, and temples all know that our tiny house villages work. Instead of annually throwing our money away with sweeps, let us continue to invest in people by putting our money into proven tiny house villages!

In our King County with its unprecedented wealth, last year, 5,228 of our unsheltered neighbors were found sleeping on the streets, and 191 unsheltered neighbors died on the streets.

This is an outrage, an embarrassment, and an immoral injustice.

Mayor Durkan is not seeing with clear vision. With her proposal to spend $8.3 million dollars for sweeps in 2020, we could use this same money to build 14 tiny house villages with 64 people in each village. That means 900 neighbors will not risk dying in the cold. Instead, they will have a home. Do I hear an “Amen!”?

Tiny house villages work. Sweeps don’t. The full City Council should follow Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s leadership and adopt her proposal.

Let us take back our city –– for and by the people!

Reverend Ying is Senior Pastor at Bethany United Church of Christ, a community working for racial, economic, LGBTQ+ and climate justice with campus partner organizations including: Got Green, Youth Undoing Institutionalized Racism, Black Power Epicenter Cooperative, Tyree Scott Freedom School, Nurturing Roots, ReWA, Rainier Valley Cooperative Preschool, and Southend Rapid Response Network.

Featured image courtesy of the Low Income Housing Institute‘s Aaron Long.

5 thoughts on “OPINION: Seattle Must Stop the Sweeps and Build Tiny House Villages”

  1. As a founding member of the Othello Tiny House Village Communiuty Advisory Committee, I can certainly say “Yes” to many more tiny house villages, but with a strong proivso: That they be operated by organizations and individuals with demonstrated integrity in their past relations to the homeless and to the city of Seattle.

    From my observations at the Othello, I have learned that Scott Morrow is not mentally fit for this responsibility, so that Nickelsville, SHARE, or any other organization associated with Scott Morrow should be excluded from the management of operations for the homeless. Scott’s campaign of deceit and vengeance against the Low Income Housing Institute is the most brazenly unethical behavior I have ever witnessed up close.

    In addition, I’ve heard from reliable sources that the tent cities operated by Scott in the past have had many problems related to the way he manipulates people and blames others instead of working through issues responsibly.

    In short, we on the Left need to get our act together. Otherwise those who are less knowledgeable will have legitimate grounds for questioning how well the city is spending its money to alleviate homelessness.

  2. Wow, the above commentary is really off base, if not libelous. From my interactions with Scott Morrow, I have found him an amazing organizer whose mission is to advance the political power of homeless people.

    That’s what people experiencing homelessness need: political power. Not charity. It’s why the UW School of Public Health gave him an award for his work. It’s why I ask him to work with my students, which he does cheerfully and competently.

    Anyone who thinks charitable models are preferable to self-governed democratic models isn’t really on the Left, Dick.

  3. Scott Morrow has now left Othello Village, along with some of his Nickelsville followers. Sean Smith has decided to remain and work with LIHI. Operations are rapidly returning to normal: Hooray!

    1. Turned out that Sean had decided to remain at Othello Village and work with LIHI only temporarily. At yesterday’s CAC meeting he announced that he’d be leaving (“this is my last CAC meeting”), presumably to the Northlake tiny house village (he wouldn’t specify), since several other Othello residents have moved to Northlake. These transfers were unregistered (illegal), occurring after LIHI helped several Northlake residents leave for more stable housing, Presumably this is because Scott Morrow is planning some kind of “last stand” at Northlake, which strikes me as a big ego trip because from what I’ve seen LIHI has done much better at operating tiny house villages than he ever has.

      And this assessment goes way back, as I was recently informed by a pastor that he’d had to terminate Scott’s tent city at his church about decade ago after reports of “grifting” that went unaddressed by Scott. This is similar to the tiny house village terminations in March in that Scott refused to address complaints that some of the “bars” of residents were not justified and that some residents were being steered away from case managers. I was an eye witness to these refusals, which took the form of Trump-like denials that simply lacked candor and credibility, at our January and February CAC meetings. In fact it was this that really turned me against Scott. Prior to this I just thought he was a little nuts for directly insulting city staff and for asking that Othello Village be shut down after 2 years (rather than continuing under a temporary permit) if a new ordinance was not forthcoming.