Can Seattle Make Homelessness Rare?
On a caustic windy day last November, as the rain poured and people ran sideways through downtown intersections in vain attempts to avoid the soaking gusts, a 62-year-old African American man sat in his wheelchair under an awning at First and University, holding a cardboard sign. He wore a gray baseball cap, a camo down jacket, blue jeans, thick black mittens, and a pair of New Balance sneakers. “Disabled Vietnam Veteran. Lost Job. Need Help. God Bless,” his sign read in runny black marker, punctuated with a smudged smiley face.
Rico lost his job as a house painter after he fell two stories at a job on Capitol Hill and shattered his hip. By November 2015, he’d been homeless for 14 months. The Veterans Administration had paid for an operation to transfer a hunk of bone from his right foot to his hip; he hoisted himself out of the wheelchair to show me that his right leg is an inch shorter than his left.
Unable to work, Rico is waiting for his full VA benefits to kick in at his next birthday. For now he lives off the $600 a month the VA sends, which doesn’t go very far, he says, pointing to his camo jacket and those heavy black gloves he bought as winter approached. He doesn’t want to go to a shelter because he suffers from claustrophobia—a hangover from his tour of duty in Vietnam. He says he “sometimes finds a place to sleep on friends’ couches.”
What should be done to address homelessness in Seattle?
His face tightened as he condemned “the red tape” and “bullshit,” the very VA bureaucracy he’s pinning his hopes on for those increased benefits to start. “If I survive until then.”
Soon a field trip dad hustled a troop of elementary school–aged kids past him. “God bless,” Rico said, reaching out and giving a high five to one of the little boys who had paused and turned back.
After spending the morning on the sidewalk, Rico had two quarters and an energy bar in a small tin can to show for it. Then, as the lunch hour approached, someone who’d passed by earlier returned and delivered a McDonald’s double cheeseburger, still hot, in the yellow wrapping paper. Rico cradled it, warming his hands.
Scenes like this are commonplace citywide. With a startling 21 percent increase in people living on the streets between 2014 and 2015, Rico is just one of the 10,047 homeless people in King County. Many of those men, women, and children are in shelters and transitional housing, and 3,772 live outside like Rico (at least 67 homeless people died out in the elements in King County in 2015; one man was found dead in Southeast Seattle’s Cheasty Greenbelt the week before Thanksgiving).
In the ultimate acknowledgement that local government was failing to deal with homelessness, last November, 10 years after the combined city and county Committee to End Homelessness (CEH) announced its 2005 10-year-plan to eliminate homelessness, Seattle mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency to address “the problem that continues to afflict our city.”
“We failed to meet our goal,” says Vince Matulionis, United Way of King County’s director of Ending Homelessness and a longtime member of CEH’s advisory committee. “Any conversation around the 10-year plan has to start there.” To be fair, CEH helped 40,000 people out of homelessness in 10 years. Unfortunately, at the same time, 5,000 people became homeless in King County each year.
At least 67 people died on the streets in King County in 2015; One man was found dead in a Southeast Seattle greenbelt the week before Thanksgiving.
All told, after spending an estimated $1 billion between 2005 and 2015 on the 10-year plan and building 6,314 units of housing, Seattle ranks third in the country—only behind New York and LA—for building housing dedicated to homelessness. But here we are. Nearly 20 percent of the 2,071 households that escaped homelessness in 2014 (about 370 households) returned to homelessness within two years.
Joey Stanton, on the streets between 2011 and 2015 before securing housing at 1811 Eastlake, a homeless project that includes services for addicts, scoffed at the emergency declaration. Despite the mayor’s good intentions—Murray pledged an additional $5 million at his state of emergency announcement on top of the $180 million total federal, state, and local dollars we already spend—the current policy decisions clearly aren’t working. “That’s a joke,” Stanton, 57, says. “To declare an emergency? Oh, yeah? Where’s FEMA? Where’s the National Guard?” he quips.
Homeless advocates agreed that the financial commitment needs to be tied to smarter policy. Alison Eisinger, the executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, notes that just 17 percent of Murray’s emergency money is flagged for immediate help and says we need funding for 1,000 homeless people immediately. During last year’s budget battle at city hall, she called on the mayor to also use money from the city’s rainy day fund: “It’s raining,” she said.
The obvious question is whether local leaders have identified what went wrong with the 10-year plan—and whether they have come up with a new approach.
While the 10-year plan was in play, the harshest public critic was Tim Harris, the tireless founding director of the local homeless advocacy group Real Change. Harris—picture Kshama Sawant’s righteousness crossed with Michael Moore’s baseball cap charm—went as far as to lead Occupy the Committee to End Homelessness protests where 75 to 100 homeless people illegally camped in parks the night before CEH’s quarterly board meetings and then marched through the city to the meeting to say: “We’re here, and we’re not going away. You have to deal with the homeless encampment issue. You have to expand emergency shelter. Our slogan was ‘Without shelter people die.’ ”
Harris’s main criticism of CEH was its seemingly exclusive focus on building permanent housing above other more timely tactics, like shelter beds and helping people with rent—known as rapid rehousing. There’s a philosophical divide in the homeless advocacy community between what’s known as “housing first”—which posits that the most vital thing homeless people need is a roof over their head—versus advocates who prioritize putting resources toward immediate services like rapid rehousing. Both sides, of course, recognize the necessity of both solutions but differ on the emphasis.
“They [CEH] were focused on housing first,” Harris says, “and they were ignoring the rising number of unsheltered [people]. This was despite the fact that…more and more people were sleeping outside because the shelters were filled.”
Sharon Lee, executive director of the region’s Low Income Housing Institute agrees: “Why create permanent housing at the expense of transitional housing with no total net gain? You have not added to capacity or supply. The most vulnerable families and children on the streets are not getting served. They are put on a long waiting list.”
It turns out CEH eventually agreed with this assessment. Maybe it was the fact that as the campaign went on, CEH was falling far short of its housing goal, which had been set at 9,500 units. As the 10-year milestone approached, it was becoming clear it wasn’t going to make the number. Locked into that specific goal, though—it was the only tangible metric and something politicians were able point to in stump speeches—the group was stuck.
“We had a number of goals,” the group’s current executive director Mark Putnam says now, “but everyone focused on one—build 9,500 units. And [we thought] that should address the issue.”
Putnam confesses today that “the problem with that approach is that people who are homeless need homes, but they also need other things.” Sounding like his own organization’s critics, he lists other stopgaps such as rental assistance, mental health support, addiction treatment, and temporary shelter.
When CEH’s original executive director, Bill Block (now an adviser at the federal department of Housing and Urban Development and who declined to be interviewed for this article), announced he was leaving in late 2012, Harris said “the power vacuum” created an opportunity to amend the group’s mission. CEH was in limbo for over a year, and eventually Putnam, then a director at the homeless advocacy non-profit Building Changes (formerly AIDS Housing of Washington), took over the top spot in December 2013.
Under Putnam’s leadership, CEH changed its name to All Home and has taken on a less dramatic goal than “ending homelessness.” Instead it says it’s out to make homelessness “rare, brief, and onetime.” That may sound like a semantic corporate rebranding, but in fact it actually embodies a revised philosophy that’s about more than building housing units. It’s also about “taking steps toward housing” as Putnam puts it. “We’ve made that shift.”
By fall 2015 Harris had noticed a major change in the group’s approach. Heck, All Home was even joining Real Change at protests. Real Change holds an annual event, for example, banging a gong all day and night in front of city hall, one gong for every homeless person. Putnam and his group joined Real Change, helping to expand the protest to Olympia. “Being involved in organizing a public protest would have been unheard of before,” Harris says. “It would have been completely beyond the pale. It would have never happened.”
Something else that would have never happened? At Real Change’s annual fundraiser last September, the group gave its annual Change Agent award, for visionary and courageous organizing, to Mark Putnam.
Harris explains today: “There has been a shift regarding CEH as being part of the problem to really being part of the solution.” That solution, according to Putnam, reflects the lessons his organization learned over the past 10 years. For example, CEH didn’t support tent cities or make funding shelter beds a priority. “Focusing [on building] those more expensive permanent housing units, when there are people dying” was a mistake, Putnam says regretfully. “There was a laser focus among politicians and my predecessor on the longer-term solutions and not on the immediate needs that people have.”
And the fundamental change at the newly minted All Home also involves something even more basic than joining protests and expanding their approach beyond the housing-first philosophy. Rather than the one-size-fits-all approach of building housing and expecting the problem to go away, the organization is now asking homeless people themselves how to address homelessness.
“What we failed to do over the last decade was stop the flood of new people becoming homeless,” Putnam says. “We need to ask people what will it take to end your homelessness? We weren’t really doing that. [Our new plan] should do that.”
There is a bureaucratic name for this approach. It’s called coordinated entry. Rather than simply building homes and directing homeless people to them, the idea is to assess individual needs and spend dollars more efficiently.
It could be as simple as buying people plane tickets back to their families to reconnect with their own personal support network. That sort of no-brainer intervention is known as diversion. But it can also be a much more difficult intervention, such as dealing with mental illness and addiction.
Angela Webster lived on the streets of Seattle between 2005 and 2011. Facing alcohol and cocaine addiction and bipolar disorder, she turned to prostitution to support her habit and lived “from fix to fix,” she says. Webster spent her nights sleeping across the street from the Gospel Mission in Pioneer Square, gathering cardboard from Dumpsters for bedding.
“The best thing [for policy makers] to do would be to interview the homeless,” says Webster, now 54. “People really don’t know why someone’s homeless unless they go out and ask them what brought them to this.” She says what they’ll find is a prevalence of mental illness.
A 2013 report called “The Housing Status of Individuals Leaving State Institutions and Out-of-Home Care,” revealed that the state does a lax job on ongoing mental health care; the report found that more than a quarter of people with mental problems became homeless within a year of discharge from mental institutions. Downtown Emergency Service Center executive director Daniel Malone, whose stopgap agency cares for homeless people with addiction and severe mental issues, sees the report as evidence that our system has disinvested in care: “What that really says to me is that we as a society are okay spending money on institutional psychiatric care, but…when they get out of such an institution, we’re not okay spending the additional amount of money to ensure they have their basic needs met.”
Webster, a former athlete and track and field coach who took a team from Sequim to the Goodwill Games, was diagnosed as bipolar at 18 and says her disorder “was hitting me from both ends, the manias and the depressions. And I would do drugs. Anything to make me feel better.” One winter night in 2011, she was doing drugs and drinking with a homeless man at Freeway Park when “he flipped out.” The man thought Webster stole money from him and “he punched me in the face and broke my jaw in two places and shoved me off the edge of the park.” Webster fell 30 feet. She remembers lying in the dirt below, unable to move her mouth. And then she realized she couldn’t move at all. “I went into shock and blacked out.”
Another homeless person found her and called the police. She ended up in the hospital for two months with a broken sacrum. She was told she probably wouldn’t walk again.
She ended up at 1811, Downtown Emergency Services Center’s Eastlake housing for homeless addicts and those struggling with mental illness. With the help of counselors, Webster is now sober and walking and active on the 1811 board that programs in-house services for residents.
Ultimately, homelessness advocates say, the real crisis is much larger than how to prioritize and fund services. Coalition on Homelessness’s Eisinger, who’s reluctant to say CEH failed given how many people the organization transitioned out of homelessness, says the problem fits into the larger political dimension of economic policy. “The huge crisis of homelessness has to be understood in the context that people didn’t just become homeless.” She believes homeless people “are the product of economic policies that have kept wages artificially low...and now there’s a huge gap in what people earn and what it costs to live.”
What’s saddest for Malone, the Downtown Emergency Services Center director, is how desensitized people are to the problem. “I have kids in high school, and certainly their entire lives, there’s just common-place visible homelessness that has been a routine feature of the landscape.” Malone argues you’d have to look back to the Great Depression to find the equivalent of the modern homelessness crisis, which he believes started during the Reagan era.
Everyone I spoke to, in fact, pegged the current crisis to Reaganomics and its massive disinvestment in social services and affordable housing coupled with tax policies that favored the wealthy. The boon to the rich was supposed to trickle down, as President Reagan’s supply-side theory had it, but what actually trickled down was economic displacement.
Joey Stanton barely survived the crisis created by those policies. The 1811 Eastlake resident who razzed the mayor for his “emergency” rhetoric had worked in sales and lived in West Seattle for 30 years before hitting the skids and ending up on Seattle’s “bleak” streets for four years. He remembers getting his head “bashed in,” and he remembers the time fellow homeless guys he thought were his friends stole his dog, Roy. He also remembers having to figure out “where you’re going to go to the bathroom in the morning…where can you go to close your eyes and just talk to God?” he says, his goatee and leather cap unable to hide the grim lines in his face.
“This is real. Three thousand people spent the night in the rain last night. In that rain, in that cold.”
An infographic on the anatomy of a crisis.
Intimate portraits by photographer Rex Hohlbein, whose work focuses on capturing the region’s homelessness crisis.