We are in the middle of a humanitarian emergency on homelessness. And while it may look different depending on where you live, the truth is that it affects all of us — so it will take all of us, in urban, suburban and rural communities — working together to step up with solutions.
As city council members in two of King County’s 38 cities that are not Seattle, we know that homelessness may look different in our communities from the way it looks in Seattle, but it still exists. People in our communities who are experiencing homelessness and housing instability — whether they are in tents or motor vehicles, couch surfing, or doubling- or tripling-up with other families — deserve the opportunity to live in dignity, with a place that they can call their own.
That is why we support the efforts of the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) to combine homelessness funds and strategy in our region for the first time ever, focusing on racial equity and justice. Homelessness and the lack of affordable homes do not know arbitrary city boundaries. Every community in our region — whether urban, suburban or rural — is experiencing this crisis. The only way we can solve homelessness is by pooling our resources, combining our efforts and working together across the entire region.
Marc Dones, the first-ever CEO of the KCRHA, has committed to tailored “subregional” plans for each part of our county, reflecting the fact that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. Those plans will include detailed data about who is homeless in each of our cities and subregions, what they need and how we can help get it to them. They will also include affordable housing options and intermediate stops on the way to permanent housing, options that work for our communities and take into account the needs of smaller cities. And, because homelessness affects Black, Native and communities of color disproportionately, the KCRHA will focus on dismantling structural racism and including people with lived experience in decision making.
As regional planning moves forward, cities like ours have a responsibility to state the facts about how homelessness happens and how solutions can work for all of us. For example, we know that most of the people who are experiencing homelessness in King County come from here (self-reporting from 2018 said 83% came from King County), may have grown up here and understandably want to stay in their home communities but just need a little extra support.
At the same time, we also believe it is morally wrong to criminalize people whose choices have been so severely limited that they are living outside. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ Martin v. Boise decision is clear that encampments cannot be removed unless people have a place to go — that means safe and adequate shelter and housing for everyone. All of the time and resources that some spend on trying to “ban homelessness” would be better spent on finding the resources to give someone a place to live — either in their own city, or by working with regional partners.
You may have heard that providing services or shelter is like a magnet that creates more homelessness. But the truth is that the factors that contribute to homelessness — income instability, rising rents, violence and trauma — are already here. Making services and shelter nearby and accessible is harm reduction; it is a caring, humane offering to the people who need it most, not a world or a city away but right here in our own communities.
We cannot just wish this problem away — every tent on the side of the road or under an overpass represents someone who may have lost a job, had a medical emergency or been evicted. They are real people, struggling to survive, with few options. They are our neighbors and relatives. They matter. Cities of all sizes, and their mayors and city council members, must do everything we can to help them. We live in one of the richest regions of the richest country in the history of the world — every person living on the street is our collective moral failing. We can and must do better.