Nearly three years ago, a newly elected Mayor Jenny Durkan took the stage at Rainier Beach High School and characterized homelessness and housing as part of a crisis “that threatens the soul of our city.”
In her first State of the City address, the mayor who inherited a homelessness state of emergency in its third year said she was so eager to get working on these issues that it had earned her the nickname “the impatient mayor” at City Hall.
But Durkan also tried to manage expectations.
“There will be times when we take two steps forward and then one step back,” Durkan said. “I know there will be times when you are frustrated with City Hall — and with me.”
That frustration — with city government and the number of people living in appalling conditions outside — in many ways has come to define much of what will be Durkan’s single term. Last week, Durkan announced she would not be running for reelection.
In three years, the angry, polarized debate over how to address Seattle’s homelessness crisis gave rise to, as one homeless systems expert put it, “unwinnable” political positions for a mayor tasked with helping to reverse years of societal failure. That’s also why some see the mayor’s last year, unencumbered by the need to win approval, as one that offers new promise.
Some of Durkan’s main priorities at the outset of her tenure have been, or are well on their way, to being met. She championed a now-forming regional homelessness authority, expanded shelter capacity by nearly 20%, transformed much of the city’s shelter stock into 24/7 enhanced shelter and implemented new accountability measures on homeless services contracts.
This year, the Durkan administration also announced a historic investment in housing for people who are disabled and have been homeless long term.
But even with the mayor’s impatience, unsheltered homelessness has persisted on Seattle streets in the last three years. During COVID-19, homelessness has become more visible, again igniting political tempers.
“There are these progress points, it just needs to be at a greater scale and with greater urgency in a way that doesn’t take so long to execute,” said Barbara Poppe, the former director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness who published a highly cited, city-commissioned report in 2016 to help the city evaluate how it could fix its homeless crisis.
Durkan, in an interview with The Seattle Times, pointed to systemic and national forces that caused homelessness crises across the country, not just Seattle. The city, she added, has been bearing the brunt of a regional crisis.
The mayor rejected the idea that her administration hasn’t treated the issue with enough urgency.
“I don’t think any city in America has treated homelessness more urgently than the city of Seattle in the last three years,” Durkan said. “And look, COVID in 2020, everything, on every front, in every city, has changed significantly.”
“A wonderful legacy“
In December 2019, the city and King County signed an agreement for the creation of a regional homelessness authority. It was not only a major step forward to consolidate funding between the governmental bodies, but a fulfillment of one of Durkan’s first goals as mayor. The authority is expected to address the fragmented response consultants have pointed to as a source of dysfunction for reducing homelessness.
“I’m putting all my hope in the regional homelessness authority,” said Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club. “If [Durkan] can use all of her mighty powers to get that regional homelessness authority up and running I think that could be such a wonderful legacy to leave behind us.”
Echohawk, a member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation and a member of the Upper Athabascan people of Mentasta Lake, also credited Durkan with pushing for more Black, Indigenous and other people of color leading work in homeless services.
“It’s a generational shift for us to have our own housing,” Echohawk said.
The regional authority, however, has also taken longer to launch than anticipated — a CEO has still not been hired nearly a year since creation — and conflicts over the leadership structure have led to frustration among both suburban cities and the people involved who have experienced homelessness.
While experts agree that a regional authority is the city’s best bet to reduce homelessness, business leaders and homeless advocates are still waiting to see what comes of it. Seattle is contributing the largest portion of funding for the new organization’s budget, but cities like Renton have pushed back against county efforts to create emergency shelter, creating concerns about the countywide collaboration falling apart.
“I hope that we see the results, but I’m also not totally naive,” said Real Change lead organizer Tiffani McCoy.
The regional approach, Durkan said, was the right step forward, and had set clear goals to create more housing and have fewer people experience homelessness.
“Do I think it will happen overnight? Absolutely not,” Durkan said. “But I know one thing for a certainty: That if you keep doing the same thing, you can’t expect different results. And Seattle cannot do it alone.”
A controversial approach to visible homelessness
The year Durkan took office, the imperfect, annual point-in-time count of homelessness estimated 3,857 people living outside in the city on one January night. Three years later, the annual estimate is only slightly lower, at 3,738 people.
However, those numbers fail to capture the explosion of visible homelessness in encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic. And even before the pandemic, long-running frustrations about those encampments had escalated to new heights during Durkan’s tenure, perhaps most notoriously in the form of KOMO documentary “Seattle Is Dying.”
“It got tremendously bad,” Marc Dones, lead consultant on the regional authority and the executive director of consultant firm National Innovation Service, said of the public conversation around homelessness. “‘Seattle Is Dying’ came out as we were moving into the [regional authority’s agreement] process. It was terrible.”
Durkan inherited the rise of and conflict around encampments, said Tim Burgess, former City Council president and interim mayor.
“I think the biggest challenge she faced was the ambiguity and paralysis that city government has experienced around homelessness for many, many years,” Burgess said. “And by that, I mean the difficulty of balancing effectively what I refer to as our compassionate response and meeting our public health and safety obligations.”
Durkan had also inherited the controversial Navigation Team, the group of police officers and social workers tasked with camp removals, which she embraced and expanded. Over the course of her term, sweeps became more frequent, and the city trained 100 additional police officers on how to move people along from sidewalks and other rights of way.
To Quynh Pham, executive director of neighborhood booster Friends of Little Saigon, the team was helpful to neighborhood businesses — even if the mayor’s big picture strategy on homelessness wasn’t entirely clear.
“I think, looking back, she has been able to implement strategies to address the issue as it comes up,” Pham said. “Maybe the strategy wasn’t as holistic as we hoped or clear to community, but there were things I think she was able to do to relieve some pressure.”
But even as the team managed some on-the-ground frustrations, critics blasted the approach as counterproductive to reducing homelessness and traumatic to people living outside.
Poppe, the former United States Interagency Council on Homelessness director, said she once believed that cities shouldn’t make it easier for people to live outside, but research showed that approach doesn’t work.
“I was really disappointed in the strong enforcement approach that was occurring under the Durkan administration,” Poppe said. “I found great contradiction between the language of intention to help people and at the same time having such an active sweeps approach.”
Durkan said that while the Navigation Team was controversial with some, “other people greatly thought that the Navigation Team was an important part in addressing homelessness,” and large-scale removals always included outreach.
This year, the City Council defunded the Navigation Team, a move vehemently protested by the mayor’s office. Still, Durkan worked with council members and service providers on a compromise to address encampments through the end of 2020. The City Council established a new city team in its 2021 budget that will no longer include police.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda is hopeful that the removal system will change for good.
“In 2021, let’s act with urgency,” Mosqueda said. “Let’s use those dollars and use them now and remember we have a public health mandate that is mandating us to put folks into appropriate temporary housing and not move folks around the city.”
What’s possible in 2021
At a brief Tuesday news conference announcing new housing investments, Durkan said that housing for people with disabilities who have been chronically homeless is “probably the most successful intervention we have to really end homelessness.”
The latest allocation of money will go to rehabilitate 154 rental homes, as well as two new affordable housing developments serving people making 30% to 60% of the area median income. It is on top of an earlier round of spending on affordable housing this spring as well as $60 million on 599 supportive housing units for people experiencing homelessness long term.
“We also need more affordable housing, period, as great as this announcement is,” Durkan said.
One of her priorities for 2021, she said, would be to work with state legislators to require other cities to provide more affordable and supportive housing.
“I think that has to be eventually one of the tools that the new regional authority does,” Durkan said, “to make sure that every city in our region is providing the resources they need for people in their communities to stay in communities and be healthy.”
Experts also suggest more city-based solutions. A change to the city’s zoning in residential areas, most of which still excludes apartment buildings, could help mitigate soaring housing prices — but require quite a bit of political capital and deep community organizing, said consultant Dones.
“This is not a problem that Jenny Durkan made,” Dones said. “But there is a shortage of 0 to 30% area median income housing that is so severe that it is literally capsizing the entire housing market.”
Poppe wants the city to increase sanitation and hygiene services to camps — a politically controversial but practical response to people living in public spaces.
But if there’s one thing Zaneta Reid, of the Lived Experience Coalition, wants for the rest of Durkan’s term, it’s to understand the “hamster wheel” of the homelessness system, and just how disorienting and demoralizing navigating social services can be when people are trying to claw their way out of homelessness.
“I would love for the mayor … to really experience the life of an unsheltered person who’s experienced trauma and little faith in anybody,” Reid said. “Have them experience that for 72 hours. Maybe they’d understand.”