A Round Table with our Human Service Providers

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No one should be sleeping alone, wet and cold outside.  That was one of the primary conclusions upon which we agreed.

Last Friday, February 5, 2016, I hosted a round table discussion with key community leaders. These advocates have been working for decades to improve living conditions for people who are homeless in our community and public safety in general. I asked them to share their recommendations.

Round table service providers

Feb. 5th Round Table with Service Providers

Thanks to representatives from Downtown Emergency Services Center, Youth Care, the ACLU, the Public Defenders Association/LEAD, Columbia Legal Services, Low Income Housing Institute, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, Real Change, Reach at Evergreen Treatment Services, and SHARE for joining the discussion.

I invited these dedicated leaders to share their observations and recommendations about actions we can take to prevent homelessness and promote public health and safety for us all.

We know that PREVENTING homelessness should be our primary objective and where we devote the highest percentage of our resources.  As our All Home Strategic Plan describes, preventing homelessness is our objective; and making homelessness rare, brief, and one time is on the continuum to get there.

While investing in permanent housing is our best long term strategy, short term public health and safety concerns require our immediate attention.

Two weeks ago, volunteers found 4,car camping photo505 people unsheltered in King County during the One Night Count.  That’s 4,505 people who were sleeping on benches, in bushes, in tents, in doorways, in their vehicles-–in other words, living in harsh conditions that most of us would not choose.

All of us at the table last Friday agreed that leaving people outside is neither healthy nor humane.  We are a better city than that.

Yet, we have nowhere near the number of units needed to bring the 4,505 people off the streets tonight.

Little House Tour

Sally Touring the LIHI Tiny House Village

The City and County have both allocated millions of dollars of additional funds to respond to the official State of Emergency declared in early November.  Our Human Services Department is making a presentation this Wednesday, February 10, at 2:00 p.m. in Council Chambers about additional emergency response plans and what outcomes are expected.  We will learn more about specific expenditures then.

We so frequently hear the words “tragedy” and “crisis” used in conjunction with “homelessness” that it becomes common place, and some think little is being done to solve the problem.  Multiple strategies are underway through our Human Services Department with our partners to create additional shelter and housing, and I will be working with our Public Health Department to develop comprehensive and predictable strategies to deal with garbage, human waste, and needles encountered in some neighborhoods.

Here are some actions I recommend we focus on right away:

Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington. Photo by: Metropolis Magazine

Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington.           Photo by: Metropolis Magazine

  • As we increase our supply of permanent housing, replicate the successful and healthy spaces such as Quixote Village in Olympia, tiny house villages like the one at 22nd and Union, call for more creative separated sleeping spaces inside buildings for individuals, families and people with pets. I have suggested we pick an achievable number – 1000 spaces this year.  From City and County-owned property to warehouses to churches to empty private lots, where there’s space, we must create and offer warm, dry off-the-street options.
  • Add more parking spaces County-wide for RVs, cars, and campers to match what the City is doing.
  • Put renewed emphasis on professional outreach and sustained engagement with people who are on the streets. Build on this trauma-informed care model before anyone is “swept” from his/her current location. I recommend we empower our outreach professionals to advise the City about the needs of the individuals living outside BEFORE a clean-up is undertaken.  There is absolutely no benefit to taking someone’s belongings and after the fact trying to locate the individuals again and reunite them with their belongings, or finding they have moved one block away and now rejecting efforts to reach them.
  • If a clean-up is contemplated irrespective of the size of the encampment, individuals must receive prior notice, be informed of available shelter and services, and have a clean timeline on when the clean-up will occur. If belongings are taken, belongings must be identified and recoverable
  • Prioritize cleanup protocols disallowing people from camping/sleeping in unsafe places like freeway on-ramps or public sidewalks; post “no-camping” signs where needed and enforce those measures.


    Possible Locker Design

  • Add and maintain dumpsters, needle disposal containers and port-a-potties at locations within the city and across the county where people are safely camped.  Although potentially controversial, providing for these basic needs will make for a healthier community for the rest of us too.
  • Make sure the police are clear:  neighbors, service providers, and elected officials alike want the police to hold people accountable who are breaking the law; we also want police to communicate clearly to neighbors and residents what is happening in their neighborhoods.
  • Lockers must be added at shelters or service providers’ locations across our city. Make lockers available where people can safely and confidently store their stuff while they are getting the services and shelter they need.

I commend our Mayor and our Human Services Department and Office of Housing for making long term investments that help people get in and stay in permanent housing.

I also thank all our partners who joined me last Friday, our Seattle/King County Public Health Department and its Board for helping create thoughtful protocols to make everyone safer.

And, just as we in the City and County are aligned in our approaches, we need our Governor, our legislature, President Obama and Congress to meet us more than part way.  We need the state and federal government to step up with additional funding for mental health and addiction services, along with money for housing vouchers and dollars for more permanent housing.  These investments will make a healthier, safer community.

Next month I will be in Washington DC making this request directly to our Congressional delegation.

We need our partners.