Between a seemingly unending pandemic, inflation, public safety issues and general weariness, sometimes it seems like the stereotype of “Seattle nice” is being replaced with exasperation.
Nowhere is that seen more than in our attitudes toward homelessness.
Displacement in the form of housing sweeps of unsheltered people is back in force, after a pandemic hiatus and a change in city leadership. And in 2021, Seattle elected a city attorney that promised to get tougher on crime after a period of trying to rethink our approach to public safety following the racial justice uprisings of 2020.
Some TV media have made a cottage industry of sensationalizing and dehumanizing people experiencing homelessness, contributing to the hardening of hearts.
But the uncomfortable truth is that as much as we want there to be simple solutions and clear-cut villains and heroes, the problem of homelessness has many root causes, many different symptoms and requires an ability to embrace nuance, human agency and, yes, compassion.
I wanted to better understand what people with lived experience and who are working on the ground think is most needed. So I spoke with two of the four co-directors of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Systems Advocate Peer Navigation team last week.
Systems Advocates work with up to 15 unhoused clients, helping them navigate often complex systems as well as identifying systemic areas for improvement. About 30 advocates are being hired to initially work with hundreds of people in the downtown area. As journalist Erica C. Barnett wrote in Publicola in February, there are still unanswered questions about how the public-private partnership paying for the program will be sustained when the initial $10 million runs out, or where people will be navigated to, if more housing isn’t created.
Co-director Zaneta Reid said the vision is to connect each unhoused person to one navigator, who will “walk alongside” as a person goes through the system and ultimately help them learn how to navigate it themselves. This approach is in contrast, Reid said, to a process where a person is handed off from one person to another.
Reid said the oft-heard perception that there is an abundance of shelter available, but people just don’t want to take it, is overly simplistic.
Reid said there are a multitude of reasons why a particular type of housing might not be viable for a person. Mental health issues that are exacerbated by a shelter environment, or fear of violence, or separation from a partner or pet are some of the barriers, Reid said.
In the current system, Reid said, “We’re not asking people, ‘Where would you feel safe other than here?’ We’re saying, ‘This is what I have for you, and I’m going to take the only home that you’ve known for the last however long it is from you.’ We’re not giving options where people would still feel safe to go to.”
The consequence is that even if you try to “sweep” people away, they will return to the place they have a community and feel safe, Reid said.
“I’ve watched one of my women who suffers from mental health issues be swept five times in the downtown corridor already,” Reid said. “And she’s still down here, you’re just sweeping them from place to place because they don’t want to leave their community.”
Another program co-director, Joe Conniff, said getting the wider public to support agency and self-determination for unhoused people is critical to making change. “How do we build that culture into our community as a whole to be on board to support voice and choice of what our unhoused neighbors need?” Conniff asked.
Conniff said we do a good job of focusing on the symptoms of homelessness but much less on the causes. “I could say from my own experiences, my substance use was exacerbated when I was experiencing homelessness, because it sure made it a lot easier to tolerate being in the elements,” he said. He said he had substance-use disorder before becoming homeless, but homelessness made the symptoms worse as the root causes remained.
Like many others, Conniff experienced homelessness in the Third and Pike corridor known as “The Blade.” He said he found community among others who were experiencing similar things.
“I think one of these primary drivers behind understanding what we’re competing with is we have to be able to re-create community or continue community for the people that are experiencing homelessness,” he said. “These are the people you care about. These are the people that care about you, when other folks in the community are not making eye contact with you.”
Asking people what housing would best support their connection to their communities would make a transition more viable.
Having someone be there and support her helped Reid go from surviving to thriving. She wants that for everyone.
“We are loving people back to life.”