The number of school-aged kids living on Seattle streets is surging, despite its supposedly being the easiest part of the homelessness problem to solve.
A few years ago, after writing some columns on how many kids were shockingly living in an unheated homeless shantytown in the heart of the city, I suggested that maybe it was high time for Seattle to simplify.
“The plans to end all homelessness tried to do too much,” I opined. “It’s time for triage. Scale them back and focus on this for 2014: No child left outside.”
Maybe less would be more, I was hoping. Start by just getting the kids off the streets.
“Even in a city the size of Seattle, we’re still only talking a few hundred families with kids needing shelter,” one advocate told me back then. “We ought to be able to solve this.”
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This kids-first approach seemed promising at first. All the children staying in unheated shacks and tents were moved out of Seattle’s main sanctioned encampment, then called Nickelsville. A citywide campaign, called No Child Sleeps Outside, later took off, raising nearly $7 million in private donations the past two years to house families with children.
One longtime homelessness advocate even chided me for the kids focus. Of course we should house all homeless children, he argued, but everybody already agrees on that. The tougher part of homelessness is adults living on the street with alcoholism or mental illness
Kids, he said, are “the low-hanging fruit” of the vast homelessness problem.
As if. New data from the state shows just how catastrophically we’re failing even at the easiest part.
Last week the state put out its annual report on homelessness in the schools, and the numbers for boomtown Seattle are embarrassing.
Since city leaders declared a homelessness emergency, in 2015, the number of homeless students in city schools has soared by 45 percent — to an all-time high last year of 4,280. Two-thirds of these are elementary- or middle-school-aged kids.
Many in that total are living in family shelters, or are “doubled up” in homes with relatives or friends. So while their lives may not be that stable, they at least have roofs over their heads, as well as electricity and heat.
But the report found an alarming 125 Seattle students completely unsheltered — living in cars, parks, encampments or abandoned buildings. That’s up from only 13 unsheltered students citywide five years ago.
The number of public-school students cycling through motels on Aurora is also way up, from 27 in 2012 to 166 last year.
There’s no pat explanation for what’s going on, other than so much economic dislocation combined with, still, not enough places to send needy families with kids. Some of the increase also may be because schools are getting better at counting who’s homeless.
But there are anecdotal signs that it’s just getting worse. Seattle’s sanctioned homeless camps, once kid-free, are seeing an influx. Othello Village, which consists of about 30 huts and a dozen tents in Rainier Valley, this week reported it was home to 12 children.
“We also have pregnant women and infants,” said the director of the Low Income Housing Institute, Sharon Lee, who helps run the city’s sanctioned encampments (some of which do have heat).
Last week, some readers got upset at a Seattle Times story that featured the grieving parents of a 27-year-old homeless woman who had died in an RV. The parents felt Seattle had shunted her out of the way rather than helping her. “Shame on Seattle,” was their summation. Many readers reacted defensively to this, saying Seattle spends $60-plus million a year on the homeless and there’s only so much we can do for an adult, hooked on drugs, who won’t come in from the cold.
All true, but what about these school kids? They are powerless. Yet they are still out in the encampments, right now as you’re reading this. After city leaders said it was an emergency; after there was a hue and cry that no child left outside is the least we can do; after it was described as solvable, as “low-hanging fruit” — even after all that, the glittering city somehow has more kids in cars and shacks than ever.
Talk about shame on Seattle.