Over the past two years, homelessness in Seattle has decreased by 15 percent – an extraordinary achievement in the face of this recession, and a testament to the success of the Seattle community’s ‘Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness’. Of the 1,753 people found outdoors rather than in shelters in the 2011 One-Day Count, many appear to have unique characteristics that are not met by the current system, such as having pets, being in family relationships, or having enough possessions that going in and out of overnight shelters is not workable. In the 2010 budget process, the Council recognized that there was a need to consider how to serve those who were not entering the current system, and adopted a Statement of Legislative Intent asking the Department of Human Services to report back to the Council with a needs assessment that would guide policies and investments that could serve these populations. This review was due on April 1, but has been delayed until May 25 at the request of the Mayor. Last month there was a flurry of media attention focused on a proposal from Mayor McGinn to create a homeless shelter on a City-owned piece of property known as the “Sunny Jim” site. Council declined to receive this legislation, because it had not gone through the legally-required environmental review process – the Mayor sending it to the Council was like sending a chapter outline to a publisher and expecting them to print a book. As articulated in the letter that accompanied the returned legislation, the Council will review options for an integrated set of services for the homeless over the next few weeks. We will begin with adopting a resolution delineating possible approaches, and conclude with recommendations that will be advanced this summer. Some of the people who are not currently in the shelter system have tents or cars that they live in, and there are a couple of communities of 50 to 100 tent campers that move around the City to various locations. One tent city, called Nicklesville, is temporarily located at Fire Station 39 in Lake City. While these ‘tent cities’ have received the most attention and visibility, they are only one part of the problem. Earlier this year, the Mayor convened a Citizen Review Panel to look at whether a City-sanctioned tent city would be a feasible approach to addressing the needs of those who are currently in the tent communities. This Panel recommended proceeding with such an encampment, and identified six possible locations in various parts of the City. Without consulting either community members or the Council, Mayor McGinn announced that he wanted to site an encampment at the “Sunny Jim” site in the industrial area, a location that had not been reviewed by the Panel. This site is owned by the City, and is currently unused. The buildings on the property burned down, and the City has just received a $2.4 million insurance settlement. The site is zoned for industrial use, where residential housing is generally prohibited under both the Comprehensive Plan and the City’s zoning code. While it has the advantage of being currently a vacant property, it is also remote from services, poorly accessed by transit, has some environmental contamination, and is near the so-called ‘Jungle’, an area on the west slope of Beacon Hill where drug dealers and other criminal elements have used homeless campers as cover and created a area that is dangerous and difficult to police. Opinions are divided as to whether a City-sanctioned encampment is a good idea. Even if that is desirable, the Sunny Jim site does not appear to be a particularly good location. And even if it were a good location, it is not possible to be used unless the site is rezoned. State law requires a set of procedures to complete a rezone, and those procedures include opportunities for public comment and appeals. The Council cannot legally consider the rezone until these procedures are completed, and this is likely to take at least six months, possibly longer. It may be possible to move forward and meet the needs of homeless individuals with greater speed by implementing alternatives other than the Mayor’s plan. Over the next three to six months, the City Council will develop and adopt innovative alternatives to address the gaps in City-provided homeless services as identified by the Human Services Department. Some of the options for consideration will include: 1) possible renovation of Fire Station 39 as a long term location for a new shelter or housing facility; 2) working with faith-based communities to support shelter space in church buildings or parking lots or on land the City leases to faith-based communities, as appropriate; 3) purchasing another motel, similar to the Aloha Inn, that provides transitional housing; 4) providing additional rent assistance vouchers; 5) considering the siting of an encampment at a location, such as one of those sites reviewed by the Mayor’s Citizen Review Panel, that preferably would not require a Comprehensive Plan amendment and a change to land use regulations to accommodate residential use; and/or 6) modifying the City’s existing shelter service contracts to address any specific shortcomings identified in the HSD and Council reviews. In considering these alternatives, we will examine the legal and policy constraints for each as well as feasibility and costs. Our goal is to approve one or more options by the end of July. In the meantime, the Council will hold the proposed legislation regarding the Sunny Jim site, since it is not legally permissible to approve it before the environmental review is completed. The Council will review the legislation concerning the $2.4 million proceeds received by the City in the settlement from the fire at the Sunny Jim settlement. We will decide whether funds should be spent on environmental remediation at the site, used for other shelter purposes, or reserved for other priority purposes in the light of continuing concerns about the budget. Homelessness is a complex problem, requiring strategic thinking about the needs and opportunities for unique individuals and families, and the cooperation and engagement of government, community and nonprofit and business organizations. As HL Mencken noted, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that we can solve issues around homelessness without putting in the energy to figure out what really works.
April 19, 2011January 6, 2023By Richard Conlin