Evana Enabulele came very close to becoming a statistic.
Enabulele has moved five times since 2013, and in 2017, almost fell into homelessness after experiencing domestic violence and a fire.
“I’m a person who has been hit with, in the face, with gentrification,” said Enabulele, a local activist. “A lot of city workers who are Black live all the way in Kent and Federal Way and cannot afford to live here, and that’s a huge shame.”
Black people make up less than 7% of King County’s population, but among the county’s homeless, Black people are grossly overrepresented at 32%, according to the county’s 2019 point-in-time count. Researchers have cited racist systems and a history of wealth exclusion as drivers of the modern homelessness crisis, and advocates say homeless youth and their involvement with the criminal justice system perpetuates some of these cycles.
While activists call on politicians to fix structural racism in policing by defunding police departments to various degrees, they’re also asking leaders to invest in communities hardest hit by the region’s housing crisis – and to stop using police to mitigate the symptoms of visible homelessness.
In demands put to Mayor Jenny Durkan, Black Lives Matter Seattle–King County and a group of organizations known as COVID-19 Mutual Aid Seattle have asked that some of the funds now being used for policing be put to initiatives ranging from increased street outreach to affordable housing. In a meeting with Durkan on June 3, attorney and organizer Nikkita Oliver and Enabulele also demanded that Durkan also stop the city’s practice of clearing encampments – a long-running debate that has gained new urgency during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created even more desperate conditions for people outside.
Other leaders in homeless services and advocacy support those demands.
Michelle Merriweather, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, says Seattle has come to expect too much from police.
“A response to somebody on the street in crisis harming themselves, not anyone else, be it in a sweep, be it someone calls 911 on someone living in front of their house, it is not necessarily a need for someone with a badge and a gun,” Merriweather said. “We’ve expected them to be social workers, health care workers – and responding to crime.”
In a Thursday press conference, Mayor Jenny Durkan echoed the idea that the city has placed more responsibilities on police to address people in crisis and domestic disputes. She stressed that the city would “have to reimagine our response to community and what they need in times of crisis,” but disagreed with some activists’ calls to defund the police department by 50%.
“I do not think it is responsible to suggest we will cut 50% of our officers,” Durkan said. “We need to make sure that we change the focus to when people call 911 they don’t necessarily have a police officer show up.”
But when it comes to people experiencing homelessness, the Durkan administration has involved more police in addressing complaints stemming from people living outside.
Last year, 100 officers from the city’s bike patrols and community police teams were trained in how to quickly move people off of sidewalks and other rights of way, a tool to complement the work of the city’s Navigation Team, a group of police officers and outreach workers that clears encampments and refers people to shelter.
Harold Odom, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition, an advisory group of people who have experienced homelessness, credits city police and outreach workers with helping him out of homelessness three years ago. But he does believe taking some money from the police department budget and investing in more outreach would help.
Police departments, Odom said, have become first responders to “mental health, substance use, the homeless, and they don’t do a good job of it. Do we need more money in those areas for outreach? Absolutely.”
To Marc Dones, executive director of public systems consultancy the National Innovation Service and one of the architects of King County’s Regional Homelessness Authority, now is the moment for local governments to make transformative change.
“We can’t, as a housing field, encourage the engagement of police anymore,” Dones said.
“I know Jenny, I’ve worked closely with her office. I’ve worked closely with Dow [Constantine, King County executive] and his office. I respect both of them and I think they are good people,” Dones said. “We can’t keep using paramilitary forces to engage populations that are predominantly Black and brown and say it’s anything other than what it is.”
Systemic racism has driven homelessness in this country, Dones said, through denying Black and indigenous people the right to property and the accrual of wealth over generations.
In a 2018 research paper looking at homelessness data and interviewing people experiencing homelessness across six communities across the country, including Pierce County, Dones and colleagues observed what they termed “network impoverishment” — the idea that it’s easier for individual people of color to slip into homelessness when the communities around them do not have the resources and wealth to support them when they fall on hard times.
The results of that system are especially apparent in youth homelessness, according to Sully Moreno, communications director at statewide homeless youth advocacy organization A Way Home Washington. In the 2017-2018 school year, 83% of students experiencing homelessness in King County were students of color, according to a report from Schoolhouse Washington that calculated that rate using state data.
Many of the youth the organization has worked with have had interactions with police, according to Moreno.
“When it comes to police violence, we see that the solution to ending police violence and homelessness are intertwined, in that they are both needing to invest in community resources rather than investing in punitive resources,” Moreno said.
Today, that’s why Enabulele works in an organization focused on land ownership for queer, trans, Black and indigenous people and other people of color. Enabulele is housing coordinator at Queer The Land, an organization that is currently in the process of buying a home to house people who are disproportionately impacted by displacement and homelessness.
In asking the city to defund the police department, Enabulele asks: “You have to think, what does it look like when folks who live in that society have their needs met?”