Seattle’s street homelessness gets worse all the time. Maybe it’s time to just give them free, permanent places to live. It works in Utah.
On his evening stroll in Central Seattle, Bill Hobson recently did his own unscientific census of life on the bottom rung of the city’s ladder.
“It’s a pretty short walk — 10, 15 minutes around Judkins Park,” Hobson says. “I counted 18 homeless people in that time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it like this.”
On his drive into work from the South End along Airport Way, Hobson said he’s rarely seen so many makeshift tent encampments.
That Seattle’s got a homeless problem is hardly news. Downtown business owners have been complaining about it for years.
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Last week the head of Seattle’s tourist bureau said that unless Seattle “gets its act together” in reducing the number of drug addicts and mentally ill people on the streets, some convention planners have told him “they may not come back” to the city. (Considering that 2014 was the biggest tourism year in the city’s history, this threat seems dubious, but that’s another story.)
But Hobson has no tourism-marketing agenda. For nearly three decades he’s been director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center, Seattle’s largest nonprofit agency helping get the homeless off the streets.
So when he says he’s never seen it this bad, Seattle should listen.
“There isn’t any doubt we’ve got a big and growing problem on our hands,” says Hobson, who is retiring in June.
The rise in street homelessness comes just as an ambitious plan designed to completely end homelessness is, awkwardly, sputtering to a close.
The Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness was a multiagency effort launched in July 2005. Barring some miracle in the next few months, it will fall spectacularly short of its stated, top-line goal.
It’s vexing because some cities that also launched Ten-Year Plans to End Homelessness have lately been getting great press for making progress. Salt Lake City has been hailed for reducing street homelessness by 72 percent. While in Seattle we now rank fourth in the nation for homelessness, behind only New York, L.A. and Las Vegas.
What did Utah do that worked so well?
“We did it by giving homes to homeless people,” the director of Utah’s end-homelessness plan half-jokingly explained to the comedy-news program, “The Daily Show.”
It’s essentially true: Utah built apartments for 2,000 chronic street homeless and simply moved them in. Most are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol, and the key is they weren’t required to go to treatment or get a job to get the housing.
It’s called “Housing First,” because first you get housing, no strings attached. Then, if you choose, you work on the problems that caused you to be homeless in the first place.
It’s hugely controversial because it gives free, permanent housing while asking for nothing in return. Seattle most famously did it with the 1811 Eastlake project, in which chronic street alcoholics can live there without giving up drinking. (Critics derisively called it “bunks for drunks.”)
It works, though. Hobson, who developed 1811 Eastlake and consulted for Utah on its plans, said the “no-handout” Republicans who run Utah came around to the idea for hard-nosed fiscal and pragmatic reasons. It’s cheaper to put a chronic addict in free housing than it is to haul them in and out of emergency rooms and shelters.
And it’s about the only surefire way to get them off the streets (meaning, away from businesses and tourists).
Utah focused on ending chronic street homelessness, not the more widespread problem of families and others in temporary homelessness. So its success is less impressive than it seems.
Still, what would Seattle give right now to eliminate three-fourths of its chronic street homelessness?
“We’ve been doing Housing First here for a long time, and it works as well as it works in Utah and everywhere else,” Hobson says. “But we’ve never taken it to scale. We haven’t tried it on a magnitude needed to match the size of this city’s problem.”
Maybe the failure of the 10-year plan isn’t just a crisis, but an opportunity.