For years, Samuel Christopher Downward has built upscale homes in North Bend, Issaquah and the Uplands — rural King County, east of the Eastside, where the median income is around double that of the U.S.
Downward, 42, has lived in the Tiger Mountain area most of his life, but he doesn’t live in one of the fancy homes. He’s homeless.
Homeless people who used to live in the woods or out of sight in this rural swath of King County are now becoming more visible — just as the Metropolitan King County Council district faces one of the most competitive races in years. The few shelters in the area are giving away every space or resource they have daily.
But the public conversation around this race has rarely focused on homelessness, and even when it has — for instance, in a debate hosted by the Seattle Times in September — candidates haven’t highlighted the enormity of what nonprofits and others who serve homeless people are facing.
For nearly two decades, the area has been represented on the County Council by Kathy Lambert, a former elementary school teacher, children’s book author and Republican lawmaker. Business owner Sarah Perry is giving Lambert her first real election challenge in a long time.
Ballots were mailed last week and must be postmarked or put in a drop box by Nov. 2.
Homelessness is an intimate issue for both candidates. Lambert was homeless herself, years ago, and Perry raised her children while navigating their relationship with her ex-husband, now deceased, who dealt with behavioral health issues and was homeless after the two separated, she said.
While Lambert has for years been a part of shaping homeless policy, it hasn’t always translated to a bevy of resources for the area she represents. It has about the same number of publicly funded beds for homeless people as the smaller and less-populated Southeast King County district on the other side of Interstate 90, according to Alexis Mercedes Rinck, subregional planning manager for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.
“There’s just not a lot of services out there,” said Rinck, who recently visited every homelessness facility in the area in one day.
That might be because the problem has worsened during the pandemic, said Jennifer Kirk, executive director of Snoqualmie Valley Shelter Services. A lot of the clients now showing up at the shelter have self-evicted because they lost jobs during the pandemic and didn’t want to continue racking up back rent, she said.
Northeast King County, which stretches out from Lake Sammamish to the Wild Sky Wilderness and Skykomish, is among the richest areas in the state: Sammamish has the highest median income of any city with at least 65,000 people in the country, according to the Census Bureau. Microsoft’s headquarters are right up the road.
But when the pandemic hit, poverty here became more obvious. In downtown Snoqualmie, a 10-person shelter that sits in what was once the first church in town has been full or overflowing every night since it expanded hours to run 24/7 year-round last fall. Downward used to sleep in the abandoned train cars a block away on Railroad Avenue; now, he has his own bed in the shelter.
“We’re at capacity and we just can’t meet the need,” said Kirk, who also gives away all the nonprofit’s motel vouchers to families each day.
Northeast King County has been quietly growing for years, but its relative remoteness to Seattle has put it under the radar. This council district — District 3 — geographically dwarfs Seattle and the Eastside, making up nearly half of the county’s land mass at over 1,000 square miles. A misty high country of foothills and valleys, it’s perhaps best known as the setting of the cult ‘90s show “Twin Peaks.”
Even though much of the area can be reached in under an hour from Seattle, urbanites think of it as far-off, said Laura Smith, who lives in Duvall and runs a nonprofit working with youth in the area on behavioral health, addiction and economic issues.
“We have to make sure that the (Snoqualmie) Valley is showing up on people’s radars,” Smith said.
This area has seen a great deal of inflow from Amazon employees or other tech workers who don’t want to live in the suburbs, said Al Dams, chief deputy assessor for King County, who’s lived in Lake Marcel for 23 years. It grew by nearly 50,000 people in the last decade, more than any other County Council district except Northwestern Seattle, and that is helping drive up home prices, which have risen nearly 10% year over year for the last five years in Snoqualmie, and nearly 24% in Duvall, according to Redfin.
“The population that’s moving in here is different than the population that lived here 10, 20, 25 years ago,” Dams said.
The two candidates now campaigning to represent this changing district on the County Council don’t differ much on homelessness strategy. Sarah Perry, who spent a short stint years ago running a housing nonprofit on the Eastside but doesn’t have much experience in homelessness policy otherwise, has adopted the general plans of King County Executive Dow Constantine and the council: build more housing, particularly permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people.
Until Tuesday, Lambert chaired the county’s health and housing committee, but after her campaign released a widely denounced mailer singling out her only Black colleague on the council, she lost funders and endorsements (including an endorsement from the Seattle Times editorial board, which is separate from the newsroom) and her fellow council members voted to strip her of all committee leadership.
Lambert essentially agrees with Perry on the basics and has long championed them, despite fellow Republicans attacking policies like housing homeless substance users without requiring sobriety. When a Republican state legislator filed a bill that would have prevented the state from financing 1811 Eastlake, a so-called “wet” housing project housing chronic alcohol users who slept on the streets, Lambert helped get that legislation withdrawn, according to Dan Malone, the director of the housing nonprofit that ran the project.
That project, and most of the other “Housing First” projects developed since, have been built in Seattle or surrounding cities; there’s little help for chronically homeless people with behavioral health issues out in District 3.
Downward, who says his parents were drug dealers and he’s been on his own since 14, has struggled with homelessness for more than five years. Even though he makes a lot of money in construction, he continues going back to drug use and winding up homeless. He blames himself.
Each time Downward gets back on his feet, housing is just a little harder to get — because housing prices out in the Snoqualmie Valley aren’t much cheaper than the Eastside.
“It’s time to break the habit — or I’m going to be crazy in Seattle, standing on a corner,” Downward said.
Ray Martinez, 61, is another construction worker staying at the Snoqualmie shelter. For the last two months he’s had a voucher but hasn’t been able to find a place to rent.
He’s thankful he’s been able to wait out the long search in the Snoqualmie shelter, where he has some fiberboard walls for privacy, a little TV and a Seattle Mariners Edgar Martinez plaque hanging from the wall.
These, and the kindness of the staff, keep him feeling positive about the future.
“You can’t give up — I’m still looking,” Ray Martinez said. “Since this place is here, it’s not that bad.”