At times our city’s most astounding feat is being well-versed in the language of compassion, without any fluency in the exercise of empathy.
A perfect illustration was the cruel contrast I witnessed visiting the corner of Fourth Avenue and Cherry Street in late February, just days before Seattle’s eviction moratorium expired.
Black Lives Matter was inscribed in vivid lettering on the concrete sidewalk just below the steps of City Hall. Kitty corner across the street stood actual unhoused Black people, among others, visiting a pop-up resource tent where volunteers handed them coffee, ramen noodles, blankets, and storage containers.
Just feet away, dozens of tents lined Fourth Avenue, directly facing City Hall. In previous days, nearly 80 people had rallied in support of the encampment, resulting in the city postponing its removal. However, the demonstration would simply reset a ticking clock, and the encampment was removed days later.
In the interim, volunteers, many aligned with Stop the Sweeps Seattle, established the ad hoc service center as a mechanism of support for the campers.
“The reason you can clear these people without offering services is because we have a law that basically says they’re an obstruction, that they’re not human,” said Tye, an aid worker who asked that her last name not be used because of privacy concerns.
I caught a glimpse of a Black woman, dressed in professional attire except for her sneakers, asking if she could get a pair of dress shoes for a work shift that started in 20 minutes. At that moment, Tye’s words crystallized the triumph of our city’s indifference toward our unhoused population.
This triumph is rooted in a prevalent social gospel that proclaims that our unhoused crisis is primarily the result of individual failings, personal shortcomings and human deficiencies.
Like most dogmas, it shields us from reality. One where any one of us is a severe illness, unexpected layoff, or life catastrophe away from living in our vehicles, on a friend’s couch, or camped on a street corner.
It’s a reality faced by many of attorney Edmund Witter’s clients at the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project.
Tasked with pro-bono representation of King County renters facing eviction, Witter, the project’s managing attorney, and his team have received hundreds of calls per day from panicked renters since the eviction moratorium expired in February.
Many of his clients, some evicted for owing between $50 and $200 (and as little as $10), overwhelmingly end up unhoused, or worse.
“I have people I represented who months later are showing up at the medical examiner’s office,” said Witter.
One tragic example was a 50-something client who’d worked at Boeing most of his professional life. Laid off, he eventually burned through his savings, leaving him unable to afford rent.
“He kept saying, ‘I’ve never been through this before.’ Like how do you watch people get evicted and lose their home?” Witter recounted.
Less than three months later the man was found dead in his car.
I can’t help but assign us all culpability. Even if we are not directly responsible for someone’s plummeting into destitution, are we guiltless if we refuse to erect adequate and durable safety nets?
“We have families in peril for $50 and $60. How is that going to help us in terms of rebuilding our cities and counties across the state,” said Gina Owens, who sits on the Seattle Renters’ Commission.
In order for us to effectively address our crisis, we must get the increasing number of households in our city that make over $100,000 to share the interests of the 351 households who were unlawfully served eviction notices during the pandemic. These households were disproportionately renters of color living in South King County.
We must all realize that stagnant wages are no match for an overheated housing market, a better predictor of homelessness than either poverty or personal failings in cities like ours, according to data analyzed by University of Washington professor Gregg Colburn and data scientist Clayton Page Aldern.
Evictions are a direct pipeline to homelessness. A lone conviction can forever blemish a renter’s record, keeping them undesirable to prospective landlords.
No one reading this is immune from the shocks of life. Making $100,000 annually in Seattle leaves someone with roughly $22,109 after taxes and expenses. How secure a cushion is that from life’s unforeseen quakes?
One intermediate safeguard would be permanent eviction prevention aid that looks similar to the Home Base program that operated during the height of the pandemic. Witter prices an effective one at about $10 million a year.
A longer-term buffer is a dedicated funding mechanism for the construction of social housing, similar to one advocated for by the Housing our Neighbors coalition. Essentially, it is permanently affordable public housing where rent is determined by a building’s debt balance and maintenance requirements instead of market forces. We can look to Milwaukee, which invests significantly in its housing-first policy and has the lowest unsheltered population per capita among major U.S. cities.
The choices we make now about our unhoused population — one way or another — will steer us toward “One Seattle.”
That can be one in which we tend to the well-being of all.
Or one in which we have a shared ideology of indifference.