I stopped by John C. Little Sr. Park the other day, a small tucked-away playfield in the South End, and was greeted by what might be misconstrued as an ordinary sight.
It was empty. It’s nothing but a regular park again. And now the story of this park may be leading to a breakthrough of sorts down at City Hall.
Last summer 15 to 20 people had laid claim to the park and kids’ play area, in the middle of a Seattle Housing Authority complex called New Holly. They were dug in, with nightly fires and a wooden structure with a foundation and a stairway cut into the hillside, to the point that neighbors could no longer use the park.
It’s a scene playing out in so many city parks that one Seattle City Council member, Andrew Lewis, told me: “During this pandemic the defining feature of our urban landscape has been the homeless encampment.”
The idea of moving anyone to a crowded, congregate shelter during an infectious disease pandemic is a nonstarter, so the city policy has been paralysis: Everyone stay where you are.
Enter the tiny houses. As I recounted in a column in late November, outreach workers went into this park with a simple offer: Would you like to live in a 96-square-foot heated hut, instead of out in the rain in this park?
“People may find it hard to believe, but all it takes to break this impasse we’re in is a tiny house,” one of the workers, from Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute, told me then.
Bottom line: It worked. Without removal by police, without punishments or protests, the homeless folks agreed to move up into a better situation, and the park is back to being a park.
There’s a sense in Seattle’s homelessness debate that nothing ever works. So when something finally does, people take notice.
Shortly after publication of that story, which I used as a platform to call for Seattle to put up 1,000 tiny houses, some business leaders, including a developer of apartment towers in Seattle, came by Lewis’ council office. Lewis heads the city’s select committee on homelessness.
“They said, ‘We’ve got money for this, and we can get more,’ ” Lewis told me. “They said, ‘We can get the business community on board. Let’s build more tiny houses. Fast.’ ”
As a result, on Monday, Lewis and some business leaders are set to announce a proposal to double the number of tiny houses in Seattle this year, from 300 to about 800 (the city had planned to add about 120.) What’s unique about this plan is not only the speed, which finally acknowledges we’re in an emergency, but that private interests apparently are stepping up to pay for the houses, as well as for preparing the sites.
Lewis’ draft calls for $7.2 million from the private sector ($1.2 million to build 480 houses at $2,500 a piece — they’re cheap! — as well as $6 million for utility work and other preparations at 12 new sites). The city would pay to operate the villages, which includes electricity, insurance, meals and 24-hour security.
Lewis said private donors have pledged $1 million so far, so the news conference will also kick off a fundraising drive.
Because of turnover, 800 tiny houses would serve about 1,200 homeless people per year, the city estimates.
“There’s a growing recognition that the tiny houses are the single greatest tool we have to deal with the unauthorized encampments,” Lewis said.
Lewis characterized Seattle’s policies around unauthorized homeless encampments as “boxed in,” for years, by what he called a “false dichotomy.” People on one side call for law and order, while people on the other decry involuntary removals as cruel and ineffective.
“Overlooked is that we all have an obvious common interest, which is that we don’t want people in tents and under freeways,” Lewis said. “The tiny houses dissolve the ‘sweeps’ debate by presenting this third way.”
Maybe. Every time I’ve argued in the past five years that we should use tiny houses as emergency shelter so that we can get people out of the encampments, I’ve been castigated as naive or a hopeless enabler by some, and as a pro-removals bully by others.
“Tiny houses in and of themselves do not end homelessness,” is how a set of slides for Lewis’ proposal describes it. “Only permanent housing can do that. However, tiny house placements can immediately remove tent encampments by providing people highly desirable places to stay while they seek permanent housing.”
Tiny houses have the best track record of any type of emergency shelter for stabilizing people and then moving them on to permanent housing, according to city data.
It doesn’t have to be a tiny house, but there’s a pandemic-fueled realization that it can’t be group shelter. A new King County program called JustCARE has also been having success, as it has moved 120 people from five downtown encampments into hotel rooms. The pitfall is that hotel rooms are expensive, and the money, which came with the federal coronavirus aid, may soon be running out.
King County also has a promising plan to buy up pandemic-idled hotels and convert them first into emergency shelters, then later into permanent housing. The county believes this plan can get 2,000 people off the streets by October 2022.
Lewis wouldn’t identify the private donors or the possible sites until Monday’s news conference. He said it’s clear the overflowing of encampments into countless parks citywide during the pandemic is what’s leading to this breakthrough.
“The current policy of benign neglect is a double-barreled failure,” wrote a city advisory group called the Board of Park Commissioners, in a letter to city leaders Thursday that also calls for more tiny houses. It isn’t right “to deprive families and individuals of their ability to use their parks,” and it also isn’t humane to “leave the people in those tents … through a long and rainy Seattle winter.”
“Benign neglect” — I don’t quite know what it is in our Seattle character that made such a generous city somehow also become so habituated to mass human suffering.
But rather than dwell on our failings — again — it sure feels to me like something is changing. The paralysis on this intractable issue might be breaking. You can see it at John C. Little Sr. Park. That it’s back to being an ordinary park really is a remarkable sight, a sign that something, finally, worked.