Transitioning From Tents to Stability: Moving Faster to Get People Inside

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Homelessness is the most talked about issue in town right now.

At dinner parties, community meetings and even at a friend’s wedding Saturday night, people want to talk about how to shift from tents in their neighborhoods or along their drive home, to building more homes and stable shelters for people experiencing homelessness. Guests peppered me with questions asking what will happen next.

The facts by now are well known: An estimated 3,000 people were counted last January as living unsheltered or without permanent housing in Seattle. This isn’t limited to adults. Our school district and Mayor noted that an appalling number of students in our region are struggling because of homelessness. For instance, at Bailey Glatzer Elementary alone, the statistics show 17 percent of students there are homeless or living “unstably housed.”

Statistics also show us that a significant percentage of people living outside have mental disorders or co-occurring drug addictions. In many cases their physical state prevents them from living a healthy life including appropriate self-care, positive interpersonal relationships, or day to day household management. These people need our targeted help.

Last Friday, October 14, 2016, in my Human Services and Public Health Committee, we discussed two proposed substitute versions of Council Bill 118794 about encampments and sweeps. If you missed the four hours of controversy, you can catch up: watch the video on Seattle Channel.

The Council Chamber was jam-packed and the audience had a lot to say.

The original Council Bill 118794 drafted by ACLU and Columbia Legal Services was intended to reduce harm to people who are camped outside, and to stop sweeping people from one outdoor encampment place to another.  You can read more about my substitute bill here.

I share these are goals. However, the legislation left open whether people could camp in parks and greenways and near schools, and the furor started.

To be clear, I want to get people inside, and I oppose allowing people to camp in parks, on sidewalks, or on school property. And so do the vast majority of people who have contacted my office.

The response to the original bill has been unprecedented. In recent weeks more than 5,000 people emailed their opinions to my Council colleagues and me; we have received hundreds of phone calls in my office expressing strong positions. To people’s credit, most everyone asked us for something better for people than leaving them to sleep outside in the rain.

Moreover, a petition calling for no encampments in parks is circulating the neighborhood blogs.  At the time of this posting it has over 21,000 signatures on it.

We know that few people choose to camp outside for long. Poverty, rising rents, failed prison re-entry programs, drug addictions and mental illnesses reduce their options for housing, and often a tent is the one choice they have left.

Fortunately, we have a roadmap called the Pathways Home Initiative  that provides data-based, national best practices for long term solutions for people living outside. We also have 17 Principles on Unsanctioned Encampments upon which we can build.

While we are implementing Pathways Home, my question has been how to bridge the gap between now and when the initiative is fully in place.

This past week, the Mayor answered that question.

I whole-heartedly support his commitments summarized below:

1. More sanctioned encampments. Four more sanctioned encampments will be opened ASAP.

2. Navigation Center. The 24/7 Navigation Center will open in January.

3. Showers at Community Centers. More community centers’ showers and bathrooms will be open to those who are homeless free of charge.

4. No tents in sidewalks, parks, or school property. While we are getting people inside and onto sanctioned encampments, no camping on sidewalks, parks, or school property will be allowed. People who are camped on sidewalks, parks, or on school property will be removed promptly but their belongings will be protected and returned to them.

5. Harm reduction: No sweeps without options. People who are camped out in places that are not prohibited will not be “swept” without an adequate offer of shelter or housing.

6. More outreach workers. We will double the number of people who perform outreach to residents of unauthorized encampments.

7. Police added to outreach. Police will be trained and included in community outreach teams.  Police will also be clearly instructed to enforce criminal laws.

8. Clean up the garbage. Commitment to respond to reports of discarded needles and garbage within 24 hours.

I support the Mayor’s recommendations and will work to assure they are funded during this budget cycle.

Solving this crisis cannot fall on Seattle’s shoulders alone. The State of Washington, King County, and other regional cities must join us.  Already King County, other regional cities and the Port of Seattle have expressed interest in coordinating efforts.

We are considering places for modular unit pilot projects, similar to Compass Housing Alliance’s Compass Crossing Pilot Project. These can be set up relatively fast at a relatively low cost. And, in January, 2017, through a formal request, the City will ask the private and non-profit sectors for creative proposals to help us find more spaces for people to come inside.

Thanks to Amazon that provided the old Travelodge to Mary’s Place for temporary family shelter, the private sector has been motivated to help solve the crisis. Other private parties have recognized the value of the model and have likewise stepped forward with ideas.

I believe these investments are important to meet the needs of unsheltered people and to address our neighborhood concerns. It’s another Seattle effort that –when successful – will become a national model of which we can be proud.