A nationally known expert hired by Mayor Ed Murray to help Seattle deal with its homelessness crisis believes officials should stop opening tent cities. The consultant, Barbara Poppe, led President Obama’s homelessness work from 2009 to 2014.

Share story

The nationally known expert hired by Mayor Ed Murray to help Seattle deal with its homelessness crisis is unhappy with the encampments the city has set up in recent months.

Barbara Poppe, who led President Obama’s homelessness work from 2009 to 2014, believes officials should not be opening tent cities, she said in an interview.

“Encampments are a real distraction from investing in solutions,” Poppe said. “You can see it takes a lot of energy to get them running and they don’t solve the problem. You still have people who are visibly homeless, living outdoors.”

The mayor and City Council passed an ordinance last year authorizing three encampments with up to 100 people each, calling them a stopgap measure needed for people living on the street. Two have opened, in Ballard and Interbay, and a third will open soon in Rainier Valley. Some people living in them are children, Poppe noted.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“I find it horrifying you have children living in encampments and that is somehow acceptable to this community,” she said. “It’s just unconscionable to me this is a choice that’s been made here. That said, I understand there’s great pressure to have a short-term solution. But I don’t happen to think these encampments are the best solution.”

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which Poppe ran for five years, remains opposed to encampments as part of any official response, arguing they can distract communities from connecting people to permanent housing.

Mark Putnam, director of All Home, which coordinates homeless services among King County cities, disagrees. East Coast officials may not understand how many people are camping outside in West Coast cities, with or without sanction, he said.

“We’re very much aligned with what Barb is saying — this is the exception,” he said, of the Columbus, Ohio-based expert. “We know (authorized encampments) are safer (than the street). People aren’t getting murdered in (authorized) tent cities.”

Poppe, whom Seattle is paying $80,000 for about nine months of part-time consulting, with three visits, is a proponent of the Housing-First approach, which gives people immediate access to permanent housing, usually with supportive services on-site.

Seattle was one of the first cities in the country to help nonprofit organizations use the approach, Poppe pointed out. Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center, an innovator in the field, now manages nearly 1,000 units of supportive housing, while Plymouth Housing Group manages almost 1,000 units in Seattle and King County.

“It’s easy in Seattle to say, ‘Everything is broken,’ because you look at the street level and see there’s a large number of people who are visibly homeless. I don’t believe that’s the reality,” Poppe said. “You have many, many quality providers who are able to assist people in moving from unsafe circumstances into safe and stable housing.”

But she said Seattle’s Housing First efforts are “not to the scale you need to solve homelessness.” Other cities, including Salt Lake City, Houston and Las Vegas, have been more committed to the approach in recent years, with enviable results, she said.

Houston and Las Vegas have sharply reduced homelessness among veterans, as Salt Lake City has done with people who are chronically homeless, Poppe said.

“Housing First has been adopted by some organizations (in Seattle) but not across the board,” she said. “In Salt Lake City, you only get funding if you do Housing First.”

Seattle and Salt Lake City are different. There are many more struggling people here — King County has 3,800 supportive-housing units, four times as many as Salt Lake City — and costs are much higher. But Seattle shouldn’t make excuses, she said.

“You absolutely have a very high cost of housing compared to other cities in the country. But you’re also a community with one of the highest median incomes, and its your rising prosperity that’s displacing poor people from housing they used to be able to occupy,” said Poppe, who made her second of three paid visits to Seattle this week.

The consultant said she planned to see one authorized encampment Tuesday but had to cancel the tour because she ran short on time due to traffic.

While opening authorized encampments and safe lots for those living in vehicles, Murray has ramped up efforts to shut down unauthorized camping sites. He calls his approach a “middle way,” saying the city is offering help as it gives campers the boot.

Weighing the rights of homeless campers against public-health and public-safety concerns is challenging; campers shouldn’t be cleared out only because a neighbor complains, Poppe said.

But officials won’t make strides until they offer campers permanent housing rather than services and emergency shelter, she said.

“If you have true public-health and public-safety issues that the city has to act on, the offer made needs to be an offer of housing that makes sense for the individual,” Poppe said. “Rarely will an offer of shelter be a good option for the individual.”

Seattle won’t turn the tide on homelessness until the city receives much more help from the state and federal governments, Murray contends. That’s why he and King County Executive Dow Constantine have proclaimed states of emergency regarding homelessness.

That point is valid, said Poppe, who helped brief a council committee Wednesday. It was the Utah state government that decided to adopt Housing First in 2005 — in Salt Lake City and beyond.

Murray has noted that Washington state has the second-highest rate of mental illness in the country but ranks near the bottom in access to treatment.

There are steps Seattle and King County can take on their own, however, and that work has begun under Murray and Constantine, with Poppe as an adviser, she said.

The region has too many small organizations running too many different programs with too many varied admission requirements, and people without homes have trouble navigating the system. The new strategy should be person-centered, Poppe said.

“Salt Lake City and Houston talk very much about being person-centered,” she said.

The PBS “Frontline” program picked Seattle as the setting for a documentary aired this week on the nation’s heroin epidemic, and some people have suggested the drug is responsible for increases in homelessness in large cities. Poppe disagrees.

Her presentation Wednesday called out other factors: Poverty, single-family households and new arrivals are correlated with homelessness. Research shows a $100 increase in rent is associated with a 15 percent increase in homelessness.

“I’ve worked on the issues of homelessness since 1983,” Poppe said. “There’s always been some drug crisis people want to point to. It was crack. It was meth. It’s heroin. I don’t think in any way that drug epidemics cause homelessness.”