Seattle voters undecided about City Council candidates should consider last week’s story about the failing Northlake homeless shelter.
The shelter, a city-funded complex of “tiny houses” on city property, is closing Dec. 31 because of chronic mismanagement and dismal performance helping occupants get into permanent housing.
Nickelsville, an activist group operating the facility, also locked social-service providers out and barred homeless residents who didn’t participate in political activities, according to the city’s housing office.
This epitomizes the ineffective, wasteful and harmful practices that are prolonging and worsening Seattle’s homeless crisis. It highlights why voters must elect City Council members focused on solutions, not the ideological status quo.
A compassionate, problem-solving council would demand better performance. It would support city housing-office efforts to improve outcomes at shelters, require them to meet the city’s basic performance standards and ensure that homeless people receive the best possible support.
Instead, incumbent council members, and at least one new candidate, have supported Nickelsville’s demands. In May, candidate Tammy Morales praised Nickelsville in a letter urging mediation sought by the activist group. It led to a petition demanding mediation.
Bizarrely, Morales cast this as a struggle between service providers and “big moneyed interests.” In this case the big money is not from Amazon — it came from Seattle taxpayers, who expect vendors to do what they promised and help more people get housed.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant touted the petition effort at a June 24 committee meeting. She said a mediator under consideration was former Councilmember Nick Licata, former boss of Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who also pushed for mediation that Nickelsville sought.
Nickelsville supporters packed the public-comment period, then council members took turns praising the organization and pledging support for its mediation request.
This show of obsequiousness came three months after Nickelsville padlocked the Northlake shelter and blocked case managers from the site. For occupants who desperately need services, including health care and permanent housing, that’s like turning away paramedics. It was time for bolt cutters, not a sympathetic mediator.
Homelessness will never resolve, and suffering will continue, if the council obstructs efforts to improve the city’s costly homeless response and ignores the advice of outside experts. National experts said Seattle needs better data collection, performance standards and more rigorous performance contracts with vendors.
The city hired the Low Income Housing Institute to run the Northlake shelter. LIHI subcontracted with Nickelsville to operate it. Earlier this year, the city documented problems and created a plan to address them. The vendors failed to meet an Oct. 7 deadline.
In addition to blocking case managers, Nickelsville failed to meet standards for documenting occupants and enrolling them in the human-services database that coordinates services.
Northlake also did a terrible job transitioning occupants to permanent housing. Comparable city shelters saw a 37% exit rate — moving people to housing — in the first half of 2019. Northlake had an 11% exit rate over the same period.
The shelter moved to Northlake after troubles in Ballard. One occupant there was charged with raping a woman at an auto dealership last year.
Another “tiny house” village, off Aurora Avenue North, closed last year after contributing to area crime problems and failing to meet performance requirements. For months it also didn’t have required case managers, and activists operating the facility impeded efforts to get some occupants housed.
Resolving homelessness is complicated and there are no easy solutions.
But the job is made harder with City Council members who support failing programs and don’t demand better performance. Such political posturing prolongs the suffering of homeless residents and wastes money needed to help them.
Vote to end this foolishness and get problem solvers on the City Council.
Candidates who will do a better job, and not maintain the problematic status quo, are Philip Tavel, Mark Solomon, Egan Orion, Alex Pedersen, Ann Davison Sattler, Heidi Wills and Jim Pugel.