Homelessness is a regional problem. In King County, we who are housed see more and more homeless people on the streets. In 2018, for the first time, the number of people sleeping in camps, cars, and underpasses has overtaken the number of “sheltered” homeless. Of these, 22% are families with children, and 83% are from King County.
We can address homelessness in Seattle by -
Significantly expanding clean, hygienic shelter units and transitional housing using a Housing First approach.
People who are homeless should be able to spend nights in safe places rather than along streets, sidewalks, and highways, under overpasses, and in parks and greenbelts. We should provide more City-sanctioned tiny house villages, safe vehicle lots, and other types of temporary housing in neighborhoods throughout the city. Vacant homes and buildings slated for redevelopment can be used for temporary housing; these exist in nearly every neighborhood.
We should also be willing to partner with businesses and philanthropy who step up to offer new models of transitional housing such as refurbished shipping containers. And we must streamline and modernize our permitting process so that these projects can be assembled over a matter of months.
Enlisting neighborhood-based outreach workers and community members to provide homeless services.
Our homeless population is very diverse. Young mothers with children become homeless because of domestic abuse; 36% of King County’s homeless people have experienced domestic violence. Young men recently discharged from prison or foster care often become homeless. 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+. Services that need to be provided include rental assistance, eviction prevention, drug treatment, behavioral counseling, and free or subsidized child care.
Outreach workers and community members can partner with local business improvement districts to identify people experiencing chronic homelessness and build relationships over time, with the goal of getting them into services and off the street. These teams can work with schools to provide social workers for unhoused students. At libraries, they can invite health care workers to help homeless patrons manage their chronic illnesses. The teams can also work with law enforcement to focus on outreach and harm reduction rather than arrests and encampment sweeps. Finally, they can work with urban food and P-Patch staff to create or use community gardens at or near encampment or transitional housing sites. This would demonstrate our commitment to community and renew in our most vulnerable people a sense of purpose and restored dignity.
We face calls to criminalize panhandling, bulldoze encampments, increase arrests, close down meal programs, and impose entry requirements and drug tests in shelters. Evidence overwhelmingly shows that punishing homeless people makes it harder for them to find housing and get work. The humane and proven effective approach is to provide them with shelter, housing, living wage jobs, and services.
Solving homelessness can help address many other problems, including unemployment, food insecurity, absence from school, and drug and alcohol abuse. In the long run, directing more resources towards homelessness may save us money by helping to deal with other problems.