DURING a recent hearing on homeless camps in Seattle, Alison Eisinger, executive director of the community Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, asked the Seattle City Council a pointed question:
“What will you do next?”
What the council won’t do is encourage more encampments like Nickelsville, which has squatted on city land for more than two years. By a 5-4 margin, the council this week rejected Councilmember Nick Licata’s proposal that would have allowed up to 300 people a night to stay in tent encampments on city-owned property.
That was a good decision. Licata’s proposal stripped neighborhoods’ ability to comment on proposed new encampments, which is not the Seattle way. And it did not directly link proposed new encampments with social services intended to break the grinding cycle of homelessness.
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Sanctioning encampments, according to a letter sent in response to the proposal by the Obama administration’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, was “a temporary and reactive response” that other cities across the country have rejected.
But Eisinger’s question stands. The city already spends more than $30 million a year in locally generated revenue on human services including year-round shelter beds.
Those shelters are routinely near capacity, which is a reason that the 2013 One Night Count of homeless found nearly 2,000 people homeless in Seattle alone.
First, churches need to step up. The city already allows religious organizations to host camps. Hosted camps have been an effective resource; camps hosted previously by Seattle University and Seattle Pacific University were remarkable showings of compassion in action.
Yet few religious entities have stepped up recently to host a camp in Seattle. City officials should find willing hosts and shepherd them through the process.
Second, Seattle shoulders a disproportionate share of the regional burden. More than 90 percent of King County’s year-round homeless shelter beds — 1,559 — are in Seattle, according to by King County’s Committee to End Homelessness. The rest of the county has only 145.
Yet about half of the families served by Seattle shelters last year had permanent addresses outside the city, according to Seattle’s Human Services Department.
As with churches, neighboring cities must step up, offering more shelter beds closely linked with social services.
Temporary beds, of course, don’t solve homelessness. But they can be the front door to a human-services safety net. That door must be open.
This editorial, originally published at 4:06 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, was corrected at 3:58 p.m. on Aug. 19, 2013. The previous version incorrectly stated that no Seattle religious group had stepped up to sponsor a tent camp.