Seattle’s next mayor is going to have to walk, chew gum and build housing at the same time.
Homelessness will be on the ballot in a bigger way this year than perhaps ever, and city residents are demanding solutions from elected leaders as visible homelessness reaches new heights at the end of the pandemic.
Millions are already being spent on the issue, mostly by a powerful coalition of business leaders called “Compassion Seattle” who say they gathered enough signatures to get an initiative on November’s ballot that would force the city to spend more on homelessness and human services through amending its founding document.
Many of the leading candidates for mayor have years of experience in homelessness work or policy, and nearly every candidate has a multifaceted plan for dealing with an issue that no previous mayor has been able to fix.
The next mayor will also have to deal with three big unknowns: One, it’s not yet clear how much homelessness has risen since the pandemic, or how it could rise once eviction moratoria expire.
Two, how would the city pay for 2,000 new housing or shelter beds within a year without a new tax or funding stream if Compassion Seattle’s Charter Amendment 29 qualifies for the ballot and passes.
And three, will the city lose much of its control over homeless spending as the new Regional Homelessness Authority starts up with its own set of plans for getting people off the street.
As pandemic restrictions lift, even more issues arise, such as figuring out how to get thousands of people off the streets without crowding them back into the mass shelters so ubiquitous before COVID-19.
Behavioral health treatment has been so underfunded for so long that it is now nearly impossible for many homeless people to access.
Fixing these problems will cost money, and few candidates are proposing new revenue sources.
Authority over homeless spending
Almost immediately after a new mayor is chosen, the city’s homelessness staff, contracts and the majority of control over homelessness strategy will move down the street to the Regional Homelessness Authority where CEO Marc Dones is preparing to present its plan to local mayors and councils.
Seattle can’t fight the massive homelessness problem alone — especially because data shows a sizable chunk of people in city shelters became homeless in other cities in King County. Jessyn Farrell, a former state representative who came in fourth in the last mayoral primary, positions herself as the candidate best at building regional consensus. She said her experience garnering support outside of Seattle for Sound Transit’s light rail expansions is going to be key.
“It seems quaint now,” Farrell said, “but 15 years ago, it was not clear … that we were going to be able to find common ground on that.”
The authority exists because homelessness response has for too long been governed more by politics than best practices, according to Harold Odom, co-chair of the authority’s implementation board and a leader of the Lived Experience Coalition, a sort of union of current and formerly homeless people.
“I know City Council and the mayor sometimes have special projects, and they want to give certain providers the upper hand,” Odom said. “I don’t think they should step into it too much.”
Compassion Seattle divides
This year, candidates will not just be judged on their platforms, but also their position on a likely ballot measure.
For example, Odom, who lives in a tiny house village in Georgetown, was originally impressed by candidate Bruce Harrell, a 10-year veteran of the Seattle City Council.
Harrell has been telling Seattleites that as mayor, he could finally take the action he was never able to legislate from his council seat.
“They want someone taking ownership of the issue,” Harrell said. “I can’t blame it on the inadequacies of the City Council. I can’t blame it on the deficiencies of the regional homelessness approach.”
Harrell wants to devote a majority of the city’s federal American Rescue Plan Act money toward “emergency housing,” be that tiny houses, hotels or mass shelters. He also wants to raise $150 million from philanthropy.
But once Harrell announced his support for Charter Amendment 29, Odom changed his mind. He sees the charter amendment as an excuse to get homeless people off the sidewalks and out of parks.
Charter Amendment 29 has become one of the biggest wedge issues in the race, with candidates almost evenly split over whether it should pass. Social service providers and homeless advocates are similarly divided.
Colleen Echohawk, who has been working closest with homeless nonprofits, originally praised the initiative on her campaign site’s blog. But she says once she found some current and former homeless people are against the measure, she backtracked.
Echohawk ran Chief Seattle Club, a nonprofit focusing on housing King County’s sizable Native homeless population, until this year, building a tiny, struggling nonprofit into one of the city’s biggest homeless contractors.
She has perhaps the most detailed plan to fight homelessness — “22 actions in 14 months to bring everyone inside” — written like an insider, proposing hiring 100 outreach workers who’ve been homeless to better connect with people outside and creating a real-time by-name list of every homeless person in Seattle.
“I have known people who’ve died because of homelessness,” Echohawk said. “These are not data points to me.”
Though she says she has a new vision, Echohawk has had to compromise in the past. Echohawk has said during this campaign that she’s against “sweeps,” but in 2018 she co-chaired a committee that recommended the city respond faster to remove campers on public property, and that the city should fund more staff “whose only job should be to quickly remove tents” without having to adhere to the city’s rules.
Echohawk said that committee was one of her first forays into influencing homelessness policy, and that it was a time of immense learning.
“[The city] always were sweeping people, and so my thought was if I can be there to influence it to be not as toxic,” Echohawk said.
Encampments at center of debate
Whether or not to remove homeless camps by force is another wedge issue.
Lance Randall, a small-business owner who’s worked in South Seattle economic development, pitches a tougher approach. He would move homeless campers into lots modeled after a Florida project that housed 76 out of 210 residents in 65 days before shutting down last year.
After that, Randall would begin enforcing laws against camping in parks and sitting or lying down on public sidewalks.
“Tell them this is against the law, but we do have a place, or places for them to go,” Randall said.
Andrew Grant Houston, an architect and one-time policy director for Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, wants to stop encampment removals entirely.
“We cannot expect people to come out of homelessness if we keep kicking them down, which is what sweeps do,” Houston said. “For many of these people, they’re working, they’re trying to get themselves out of homelessness, but they cannot because we won’t let them.”
Houston would also build 2,500 tiny houses and allow sanctioned camps for a time while housing is built.
He wants to implement safe consumption sites, a controversial plan to provide a place where people could use drugs under the supervision of medical professionals, with counseling services and connections to treatment.
Art Langlie, a construction executive and grandson of a Seattle mayor and governor, is also concerned about the impact of substance use disorder on homelessness. His administration would devote more resources to getting people into treatment.
“If we keep talking about this being a housing problem, but not a drug cessation and mental health problem — we’re going to continue to lose,” Langlie said.
The grandson of Seattle mayor and Washington Gov. Arthur Langlie, he has been on the advisory board of the local Salvation Army shelter system for nearly two decades. Langlie wants to scale up shelters like The Salvation Army’s Sodo shelter, which have semiprivate walls and bathrooms.
Both Langlie and Farrell have suggested using money from the settlement the state recently won against Purdue Pharma to fight drug use disorder in Seattle.
Finding money for housing
Most candidates are talking about leveraging the next two years’ influx of funds from the federal government and gathering money from philanthropy to get everyone who’s unsheltered off the streets.
Casey Sixkiller is the only candidate talking explicitly about passing a $1 billion local levy to quickly buy permanent homeless housing much like King County is doing with a sales tax.
Sixkiller was Mayor Jenny Durkan’s deputy mayor overseeing homelessness during the pandemic when the Durkan administration received heavy criticism from council members and advocates for not setting up more hotel shelters faster.
“The fact is, we’ve got people in the tiny house village program that have been there for over 360 days,” Sixkiller said. “The shelter system, the tiny home villages, those are not intended to be somebody’s permanent home.”
City Council President M. Lorena González suggests taxing the richest for more money.
González, the only sitting politician in the mayoral race, has been endorsed by former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and state Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, who works at one of the city’s largest shelter and housing nonprofits. González has relied on her record rather than promising a change in direction.
Her website didn’t mention the word “homelessness” until Thursday, after The Seattle Times asked for more specifics about her plans. A document González’s campaign sent in response and posted online outlined general goals to “improve” the shelter and behavioral health system, limit rent hikes and require four months’ notice for significant rent increases, among other things.
González said the reason she’s been unable to attain these goals from her council seat is because of Durkan’s unwillingness to take on the issue.
“I think that we haven’t made the impact that we need on homelessness, it’s not because we don’t think it’s a priority,” said González, who also sits on the governing board of the Regional Homelessness Authority. “It has been a top priority in every single budget session, and in most of our policy conversations, to really focus on: How do we continue to invest in homelessness at the scale needed?”