My Opening Remarks to the People’s Assembly 2016

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This month, I will be sharing highlights from the People’s Assembly that we hosted on February 27, 2016. Here are my introductory remarks.

Thank you Adam, for your inspiring opening of the Assembly. I also wanted to thank Adam and all of our staff members—Rebekah, Ben, and Ted—for doing most of the organizing for this event, and, indeed, all of the events we coordinate.

Before we begin, let us join together in conveying our condolences to the family of Che Taylor, the latest black victim of police brutality in Seattle.

I have asked that Seattle Police Chief O’Toole appear at a public meeting before the City Council to answer the questions that people have about this incident.

Welcome all activists – a special welcome to those of us who are activists and are, at the same time, personally experiencing homelessness. I have always said, for those of you who know me closely, it takes a special brand of courage to become a political activist when you are yourself facing difficult and hostile situations in your own personal lives.

I wanted to welcome the elected officials who are here with us, and some will be speaking. I will also be reading solidarity statements from those who are unable to be here today.

I also wanted to welcome all the service providers and advocates who have been fighting this fight for years, and in some cases, decades.

The idea behind the People’s Assembly—as an organizing event to build our collective strength around concrete political demands and to build a strategy to win those demands—has been around since we were first elected in 2013.

As you know, we have hosted—and many of you were with us when we organized the town halls and public meetings over the last two years—around affordable housing, rent control, on the violence against the LGBTQ community on Capitol Hill.

Each of those events was a call to action – each one was not a talk shop, but an organizing meeting. And each one of those meetings has been part of the successful, dramatic shift in the political landscape that we have caused together in this city. We have succeeded in opening up City Hall to the people of this city.

As we were discussing ideas for the Assembly late last year, homelessness was clearly emerging as the most urgent social misery for which we need to prioritize solutions.

The Mayor declared a state of emergency around homelessness. I fully agreed with him, and I have supported every dollar that has already been allocated to expand services to deal with homelessness.

It was in the same vein that I put forward a proposal in last year’s budget in November: $10 million to expand shelter space and serve homeless people. That proposal originally came from the activists and the advocates from the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. That proposal—and this shows you what we are up against in City Hall—got only two votes: myself and former Councilmember Nick Licata, who was a champion for homeless people, poor people, and working and middle class people.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the best and most effective options to address homelessness. We rely on homeless advocates and social service providers who have decades of experience and insight. We rely, most importantly, on those who have experienced homelessness first-hand and continue to experience it, because no one knows better than you what your needs are.

Many of you wrote emails, called our office, wrote comments on the Facebook page for this event, and I thank you for your engagement! I apologize if we were not able to respond in some of those cases. We do try our best. Of course, we know we are not able to respond to every individual.

But please know, that all the resources of my office, including the long work hours that my staff members put in, are always single-mindedly devoted to serving the needs of ordinary people like ourselves, and to continue building our movement that has already won historic victories.

Not one minute of our time is used to give any deals to big corporations.

Many of you have told us – we need individually tailored solutions for homelessness. It is true that homelessness is a complex issue, because people have different life experiences that have rendered them homeless – there’s domestic abuse, job loss, different kinds of financial stress, foreclosures. There are many veterans who have served our country and are homeless. There are people suffering from substance abuse. Many people who are not even counted as homeless are really homeless, because they are couch-surfing or are living in their parents’ houses.

We know it is a myriad of issues. But we believe that this problem is completely solvable.

Many of you have told us about the existing barriers to making shelter a viable option. Married and unmarried partners need to have the right to be housed together. Families need to be able to stay together. People should not be separated from their pet companions. There need to be adequate services to help those dealing with substance abuse. Above all, housing solutions need to be developed in partnership with the homeless community! I could not agree more with all of these.

But our call to action from our movement that we are building together is also making some things very clear to the power brokers in this city.

We need money to address homelessness.

Just to give you one quick example: the restrictions that exist in shelter providers are a direct consequence of inadequate funding. There are other complications, that is true, and we need experts to help us deal with them, but all of those can be addressed if there is political will in City Hall.

A Councilmember, one of my colleagues, recently said at a committee meeting, “don’t come and tell me that this is a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it.”

My response to that is, “Well, that is exactly what works for rich people.” And as a matter of fact, the only practical way of solving a problem is to have the solutions to match up the scale of the problem.

We can discuss how best to use increased funding, but we stay united in our demand for increased funding.

As many currently and formerly homeless people have told us, sweeps are not the answer.

Out of the five million dollars the Mayor has allocated after the state of emergency was declared, over $1,080,000 of the $5,000,000 are being used to conduct sweeps.

Now, we have heard from State Senator Reuven Carlyle that he wants a million dollars from the state transportation budget to be used to build a fence topped with razor wire around the East Duwamish Greenbelt to prevent homeless encampments inside the greenbelt.

This seems out of touch with reality to me, and a complete waste of a million dollars.

I think we can come up with many practical, creative ways to spend those million dollars.

What we need from the state and federal governments is not barbwire fences; we need them to close corporate tax loopholes, and to tax the wealthy to fully fund social services, mental health services, and services for drug addiction. All of these would be geared towards a common sense, practical harm-reduction strategy to end homelessness.

Putting money into sweeps and barbed wire fencing is missing the point. Homeless people are homeless because they face barriers to finding housing. Let us take steps to eliminate those barriers.

All the speakers today are going to give us more insight into solving the problem from various angles.

I apologize in advance that we do not have time to have public comment. We usually try, but we had to make a choice between having a real exciting series of simultaneous workshops or public comment, and we thought that we would all collectively gain much more by hearing from activists who are fighting on specific issues – so that we can all come together, and fight on all of them.

What is paramount is that we stand united to build our movement to end homelessness.

You will see from the organization of the panel,that it has been done with a view to have voices from various sectors, and it will not be complete. We shouldn’t expect it to be complete. What we want is for today to be the beginning of a resurgence of a movement this year.

I also have to add this: politicians—not me, but other politicians; I don’t think of myself as a politician—corporate politicians are making the argument that interim solutions, like encampments and shelters, don’t work, and we shouldn’t put any money in it.

Let it be noted that it is the same politicians who are also the obstacle to making permanent housing affordable for all.

Our movement should refuse to buy into these disingenuous arguments. We are fighting to expand shelter space so that not a single human needs to live even a single night out on the streets.

But we don’t claim that temporary housing is the end of the answer. In fact, we are the ones – our movement has been on the forefront of demanding rent control, to demanding that big developers pay for affordable housing, to have the city’s bonding capacity to build thousands of city-owned affordable housing every year.

Our movement, along with Councilmember Nick Licata, and courageous tenants who are East African immigrants, won a campaign last fall against notorious slumlord Carl Haglund. Out of that, Councilmember Licata and I proposed the Carl Haglund law – which would, when passed, make it illegal for landlords to increase rents when there are pending housing code violations.

I am happy to report that the Mayor’s office is working with my office on that legislation, and we will jointly be bringing it forward very soon.

My office is also working on two other tenant bills: one to cap move-in fees, and the other to enable relocation assistance to those who have to move because their rent skyrocketed – in other words, people who have been economically evicted.

We have to fight to make housing affordable.