Nine months ago, facing a growing homelessness crisis and shortage of resources to address it, I declared a state of emergency (SOE) in our city. As in an earthquake, the SOE is a request for the state and federal government to step up in a crisis. That action also signaled that the city would do all it could to help people go from living in the streets to shelter, and to prevent people from falling into homelessness in the first place.

As we have poured time, resources and compassion into one of our most difficult challenges, we have learned that cities and towns across Washington and all over the West Coast are facing a growing reality. More than half a million people are homeless around the country, with nearly 3,000 unsheltered here in Seattle. We have spent $50 million to address homelessness in 2016, the highest total in our history.

Challenges range from cuts in funding by the state and federal governments for mental health, a national epidemic of addiction, and in far too many cases economic policies that have left millions of Americans behind while just a wealthy few accumulate most of the country’s wealth.

The images of those living under bridges, in parks, and on sidewalks are a painful, sobering vision of what inequality looks like in America today.

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Image: Rex Hohlbein

Over the last year since the SOE declaration, we have aimed to address homelessness from many different angles. The SOE focused on increasing the number of shelter beds available to those experiencing homelessness, making services and treatment more readily available, and laying the groundwork for a long-term plan to get more people into steady housing. We know we can do this work better, and serve those living outside better by doing so.

We have run into some road blocks and some expected challenges, but at each juncture have directed our response with two main goals in mind: reduce harm as much as possible and house as many people as possible. With that in mind, we have set out to develop a long-term strategy that will help those currently experiencing homelessness, and divert those who might be on the pathway toward it. 

This week, I announced a major piece of that effort by hiring the city’s first Director of Homelessness, George Scarola. This cabinet-level position is responsible for leading the city’s efforts to address homelessness by providing oversight and evaluation of outcomes, strategic guidance, and leading community engagement. The Director will be able to identify and implement institutional changes that ensure we are achieving these outcomes for those who have lived for too long without access to housing.

In George we found someone who has a history of tackling complex issues with an array of stakeholders, by being inclusive and outcome driven. Seattle has many experts and city departments that work on this issue, as well as community members, service providers and other non-profits. George will work with each of them from a management perspective, to develop and implement our long-term strategy around getting more people into homes. This is a get the job done moment.

Seattle can’t do this alone and this issue doesn’t just have one solution. When one encampment features a family who lost their home, a person struggling with addiction, and another engaging in property crimes to feed their habit, it is clear we need the full range of services the city and our partners bring to bear. That is particularly true in our work with King County, as this is an issue all over our region and one where public health experts play a key role.

We need better state and national investments in mental health and treatment for addiction. But we also need more affordable housing, which is why we have committed to building 20,000 affordable units in Seattle in the next 10 years, in part through the $290 million housing levy passed earlier this month. We need better wages and access to education—Seattle is already leading by moving toward a $15 minimum wage and better early childhood education. These policies will help people achieve more economic security. 

In the coming weeks, we will announce a long-term plan to address homelessness, including ensuring we are measuring our work by achieving important outcomes like getting people into homes. 

Our city, our state, and our country can do better. Seattle will lead, as we have often done, and we will work across the board to make homelessness and short and rare experience for as few people as possible.

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