Sometimes in our city, it seems like we wait for the bridge to nearly collapse before we realize we need dramatic action to address the cracks in its girders.

We see these cracks in our response to homelessness. We have long known there was a homelessness crisis; this is not new. We have been talking about it as long as I can remember, but the numbers show we have not made significant progress. In Seattle, we claim to be leaders in the “housing first” approach to homelessness. But somehow King County still had the third largest population of people experiencing homelessness in the country in 2017. Last year, more than 11,000 people experienced homelessness in King County, with 5,300 unsheltered, according to the annual estimate, which is an imperfect snapshot in itself.

In just a few months, the coronavirus pandemic has shown us how catastrophic these cracks really are.

It doesn’t take an epidemiologist to understand why having thousands of unsheltered and unstably housed people puts lives at risk in a contagious disease pandemic. Most tragically, it puts the lives of already vulnerable people in even more jeopardy. Living in congregate shelters with no way to socially distance or in an encampment with no access to running water for hand washing, gives the virus an opportunity to spread. These conditions then create risk for the lives of service providers and other workers who then could spread the virus to their communities.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We saw swift action was possible in the weeks after the first coronavirus death in Washington at the end of February. King County moved to house unsheltered people in early March, quickly setting up 14 modular units in addition to 72-person dorms for quarantine in addition to the rapid purchase of a motel for general patient isolation. Since then, shelters have been thinned and overflow shelters opened, but as feared, coronavirus cases among people experiencing homelessness in King County have jumped, from 27 to 112 in less than two weeks in April, and two people have died.

Stimulus checks will help homeless Seattleites — but not into housing

What could it look like to radically transform our approach? I asked leaders in the homelessness advocacy community for solutions.

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Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said our failure to provide for the most basic needs for sanitation, shelter and safety indicates how “desperately inadequate” our response to homelessness was before the pandemic.

To address both what is transformational and what’s necessary, in the short term, she estimated we need 7,000 to 10,000 individual rooms — hotels, motels, dormitories, etc. San Francisco, for example, recently voted to rent 7,000 hotel rooms to shelter unhoused people. Eisinger said civic institutions like universities, schools and transit agencies should be enlisted to convert empty facilities at their disposal to provide shelter and sanitation.

Longer term, Eisinger said, we need to start rapidly purchasing buildings for housing and investing in the wraparound support needed to dramatically scale up the number of beds available that are individual spaces, with doors and sanitation connected to the sewer system — from a couple of hundred new units of permanent supportive housing a year to more like thousands, and fast.

To pay for this investment, Eisinger said we need to overhaul our upside-down state tax system, which has the terrible distinction of being the most regressive in the country. With no income tax, poor and lower income residents carry a heavier burden through sales taxes. There has never been political will for the changes needed before, but maybe this pandemic will finally cause us to rethink our priorities.

“[Homelessness] is something that we have normalized and it is not normal. It cannot be normal. And in a pandemic, I hope that it becomes abundantly clear that everybody’s health is related to everybody else’s health,” Eisinger said.

But health, while important, is not the only thing that connects us. By virtue of our humanity, we have an imperative to care for one another.

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Colleen Echohawk, executive director of Chief Seattle Club, said she’s been reminded of lessons she learned from a Lakota elder and teacher, who taught her that we belong to one another. We are all related. How must we care for our siblings? What responsibility do we have to each other?

Colleen Echohawk, executive director of Chief Seattle Club, speaks at a news conference on  December 17, 2018.  (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Colleen Echohawk, executive director of Chief Seattle Club, speaks at a news conference on December 17, 2018. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

“In many ways, our system needs to break down,” Echohawk said. “It hasn’t served all people well. … How are we going to break? Are we going to break in a way that lifts up marginalized communities?”

If bold action is not taken — action unhampered by our usual trifecta of Seattle process, dithering and half measures — we could be looking at a tsunami of new people experiencing homelessness on top of our existing crisis, as the coronavirus-fueled unemployment rate skyrockets and the ban on evictions expires.

The cracks have been there a long time. Will we finally take the hard steps to do something about it before the bridge collapses?