Seattle spends nearly $50 million every year to address homelessness. Other cities in the region need to step up and help address a crisis that's getting worse.
THE frustration over Seattle’s homelessness crisis is justified. The crisis demands a much broader regional response and more help from the state and federal governments.
Mayor Ed Murray has been shaking up the city’s response to the growing homeless problem with the objective of protecting public safety and moving people out of homelessness for a night or the long term. But Seattle can only do so much.
In the wee hours of Friday morning, Seattle Times editorial board members joined hundreds of other volunteers in Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness’ One Night Count to estimate how many people are unsheltered in the county. A preliminary estimate is 4,505 — a 19 percent increase over last year’s figure.
Help the homeless
Want to get involved beyond the One Night Count? The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness will host free advocacy trainings on Feb. 24 in Ballard and Feb. 27 in Kent.
More information: homelessinfo.org
That is only a snapshot of the challenge. The state’s largest city has been inundated with more than 130 encampments, largely because so many services are concentrated in downtown Seattle. Homeless families and individuals outside of the urban core often have nowhere else to go.
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Surrounding communities have not stepped up enough to help people who find themselves homeless for a variety of reasons, ranging from job loss and soaring rents to mental illnesses and drug addiction.
Eastside cities have failed to adequately fund A Regional Coalition for Housing (ARCH), a low-income housing partnership. In South King County, cities tolerate the fact there are no shelter beds for youths. And providers of drug-treatment programs face stiff headwinds from municipalities when seeking to site facilities in their cities.
The mayor points out that Seattle’s traditional funding methods have propped up a system that is not resulting in better outcomes for people who seek a roof over their heads. In forking over nearly $50 million to agencies, the city is shifting to a model that rewards measurable outcomes.
The city has sanctioned some camps with access to basic amenities in Ballard and Interbay. But illegal encampments continue to pop up. They are not ideal, but the city cannot provide shelter for every homeless person.
Recent cleanups of the most dangerous encampments have drawn the ire of homeless advocates concerned about homeless people’s loss of property. But the city has a responsibility to maintain public safety.
The peril of ignoring these camps was highlighted Tuesday when five people were shot, including two who were killed, in the illegal homeless encampment under Interstate 5 known as “The Jungle.”
Seattle’s relatively new, comprehensive approach is to clean up encampments located in the worst places. Accompanying cleanup crews are social workers to connect residents with treatment services, hotel and motel vouchers, and cash for transportation or housing. So far, the city has reported mixed results. Not everyone accepts shelter or help. For others, human-services workers must make multiple visits to gain trust.
In one case, workers kept encountering one woman who engaged in prostitution to survive and was reduced to 90 pounds. After four visits, she finally accepted shelter.
Providing wraparound services is certainly a more humane way to help vulnerable individuals than leaving them in squalid settings that attract violence, trafficking and drug use.
With the assistance of Public Health – Seattle and King County, a medical mobile van soon will begin treating people on the streets with chemical dependency and other health issues.
Leaders from Seattle and other jurisdictions must continue to gather data on why some people refuse assistance and stay outside. Those problems might be fixable, such as when people have pets or are dependent upon a partner. Language barriers might be another issue.
For now, the City of Seattle has done its part by creating hundreds more shelter beds and opening up parks for people living in recreational vehicles.
Many more solutions are needed to reduce homelessness in the long run, and those efforts should not come only from Seattle City Hall.
Elected officials from throughout the region must consider how they can help to solve the homeless crisis.