My Letter to Mayor Durkan Opposing Cuts to Homeless Shelters & Services

On December 6, I wrote the following letter to Mayor Durkan and Human Services Department Director, Catherine Lester, explaining my opposition to cuts to homeless services and the elimination of 249 shelter beds. These cuts disproportionately impact organizations providing essential services for women and some of Seattle’s most vulnerable homeless populations. I have heard from numerous service providers and activists who are working to restore this funding. While making these cuts, the political establishment has at the same time opposed taxing big business so the City can build thousands of desperately needed publicly-owned permanent affordable housing units. Housing is a human right, and the Mayor and City Council have a duty to do everything in their power to ensure everybody has access to quality, affordable housing.    

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Dear Mayor Durkan and HSD Director Catherine Lester,

I have growing concern about the Pathways Home approach to homelessness in Seattle, which I will explain below.

I would like to thank the staff of the Human Service Department (HSD) who have answered all the questions from my office and from the public regarding the 2018 homeless services funding in a timely and thorough manner.

When Pathways Home was unveiled by former Mayor Ed Murray, I raised serious concerns that it will treat homeless services like a business rather than addressing the real needs of Seattle’s homeless crisis. The 2018 HSD funding awards for homeless services, announced last week, demonstrate some damaging implications of this approach.

For example, I was horrified to learn that in 2018, HSD plans to eliminate 249 shelter beds (see the table below, summarizing the figures provided by HSD staff) along with cuts to hygiene services. This is at a time when the number of unsheltered homeless people in Seattle far outstrips the available shelter beds.

HSD Shelter Funding Awards 2017-2018
Year Basic Beds Enhanced Beds Total Beds Total Cost
2017 964 749 1713 $11,867,981
2018 220 1244 1464 $16,264,881
Change -744 495 -249 $4,396,900

The justification for this approach my office has heard from HSD staff is that you have made a strategic shift toward putting resources into transitioning homeless people into permanent housing.

Needless to say, my office believes that access to quality affordable housing is a human right. I have been strongly advocating for renters rights, rent control, and increased City investment in affordable housing. It was extremely unfortunate that the majority of the City Council and Mayor Burgess opposed the HOMES Tax on big business during the budget votes last month.

However, it is completely disingenuous to be eliminating shelter beds at a time when both temporary shelter solutions and permanent affordable housing have failed to keep up with the escalating problem of homelessness.

For example, SHARE-WHEEL operates low barrier shelters that provide a warm, dry place for people to sleep at night. In my view, a sensible and rational approach to homelessness means maintaining transitional housing solutions at all times. But especially given the current dire shortage of permanent affordable housing, shelters like the ones operated by SHARE-WHEEL are a lifeline for people whose only alternative is the inhumane experience of being exposed to the elements on the streets.

There cannot be a serious approach to transitioning people into permanent housing if permanent housing continues to be unaffordable. As reported in the Seattle Times, “92 percent of the 31,000 new market-rate apartments that have opened in Seattle this decade have been luxury units, with an average rent just under $2,000 a month.”

In my observation, some of the same elected officials who oppose temporary shelter solutions in the name of permanent housing have also been the obstacle to policies that can result in affordable permanent housing. We need policies to stem the loss of existing affordable housing. The urgent need for rent control in the Seattle region is self-evident from the experience of hundreds of thousands of people. But furthermore, nationwide research shows that every time average rents rise by $100, homelessness increases by 15%. We also need to raise revenues from progressive sources to seriously ramp up the building of publicly owned affordable housing units every year. This will require taxing big business and the wealthy.

My office has spoken to many homeless individuals who were placed in apartments they knew they couldn’t afford with limited-time vouchers, only to become homeless again when those vouchers inevitably expired, and now with the added barrier of an eviction on their record.

Until there is adequate transitional and permanent affordable housing, homeless services need to be scaled up to meet the growing real need, not scaled down based on a future target of transitions to affordable housing. And we need to be honest and admit that these targets will not be met, in any case, unless the above-mentioned policies are urgently put in place.

Thank you for your time and consideration, and thank you again to HSD staff for your responsiveness and transparency. It is likely that next year I will Chair the Council committee responsible for Human Services. I am excited to work with all of you to ensure that the City’s resources are used to meet the needs of ordinary Seattleites, many who are struggling to get by in a city of massive wealth inequality.

Sincerely,

Councilmember Kshama Sawant

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