New Approaches to Ending Homelessness in Seattle

Homeless man

Lena Blake

| Last month, Seattle missed the deadline to execute an ambitious Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. Despite homelessness decreasing nationally and statewide during that time, the homeless population has been rising disproportionately in King County. According to the January 2015 count, living on the streets of King county has risen 21% in the past year, amounting to more than 3,770 people. Seattle is the 23rd largest U.S. city, yet now ranks fourth in the nation for homelessness only following New York, L.A., and Las Vegas.

To understand what is driving Seattle’s homeless problem, we need to look back to the early 2000’s. Seattle’s technology bubble was growing alongside housing prices while there were also major budget cuts from the Federal government for homeless services and low-income housing. Homeless advocates also point to issues of broken mental health care systems and racial disparities as crucial factors that brought us to this critical state of severe homelessness.

Last year, Seattle was the fastest growing major American city, and still ranks fifth place. The booming economy is achieving both wealth and poverty as rent climbs. The recent micro-housing boom displaced the low-income and homeless. Unaffordable housing and high costs of living are increasingly making Seattle available exclusively to the affluent. KUOW reports, “There were larger forces that helped derail the plan: the recession, massive cuts to mental health and substance abuse programs. People were laid off, lost their housing and wound up surfing on couches, camping in car or living on the streets. And then, as the economy recovered, Seattle boomed into a tech hub. Grittier parts of our city, where housing had been more affordable, turned into high-rent districts that attract well-paid workers.”

Neighborhoods are redeveloped for profit and redesigned for the affluent, pushing out those with low and middle incomes. Displacement is especially apparent in downtown areas, such as Capitol Hill and Belltown. Under the guise of creating diversity and density in multi-income neighborhoods, projects like redeveloping Yesler Terrace are underway, tearing down low-income homes to be replaced by high-rise condos. Learn more by following Even the Walls: 70 Years of Life at Yessler Terrace, a short film being developed exploring what these communities are losing in this process of rapid gentrification.

The city of Seattle has taken laudable steps to address the issue of poverty. In 2014, Seattle approved a minimum $15 wage, as well as a budget package of $4.8 billion that allocated close to $1 million to services for the homeless. One of the most praiseworthy elements to this is that it produced funds for transitional encampments. In places like Manteca, California, “the city council passed two ordinances intended to rid the city of its homeless population,” Zeeshan Aleem describes. Recognizing that banning homeless people does not solve the homelessness problem, Aleem says, “Seattle’s encampment funding demonstrates a tragically rare stroke of attention for a demographic that’s to be extricated rather than assisted.”

Despite the much-needed attention, homelessness is worse than ever in Seattle. While a long term solution is being worked on, Al Jazeera reports Seattle mayor defends plan to open tent cities to curb rising homelessness. Concerns of marginalization and discrimination are mounting among the homeless that restrictions to this plan will literally push them further to the outskirts of society.

With a growing problem, advocates suggest Seattle look at different approaches with a successful track record. Salt Lake City launched their own Ten-Year Plans to End Homelessness, with much better results. They have been praised for reducing chronic homelessness by 72% since 2005, and ending it for veterans. Utah utilizes the “housing first” principle, that the homeless need “housing first” to work on other health and material needs. Using this ground rule, Utah built more than 2,000 apartments and simply moved in chronically homeless people. Controversially, they gave away free housing regardless of mental health or addiction, but we’re seeing positive outcomes. These programs are proving to be cost efficient and effective.

Traditional school of thought follows strict abstinence rules during recovery as the only socially acceptable path to a fulfilling life, but one size does not fit all. Seattle has followed the housing first principle at a much smaller scale, with the 1811 Eastlake Project, where chronic homeless alcoholics can go to address their needs. It has meant taxpayer savings, but much more to the affected homeless. It has made the road to recovery easier to have been allowed a bit of leniency. These programs motivate self-sufficiency and risk-taking, while allowing autonomy during transition.

Another approach Seattleites are taking can be found driven by the nonprofit, Sawhorse Revolution. They are propelling the development of the “Impossible City forward in collaboration with Seattle’s Nickelsville homeless community. The Impossible City, an eco-friendly moveable village for Seattle’s homeless is in the process of being built by local youth backed by teams of engineers and architecture firms. The goal is to design tiny homes made of mostly recycled and salvaged material. The community is also planning on a solar power hub, composting toilets, and a communal kitchen.

Homeless encampments move every 3-18 months in Seattle and so a portable, off-grid alternative was welcomed. Though not intended as a permanent solution to homelessness, these mini-residences are helpful as transitional housing and help to secure stable housing in the future by giving residents somewhere for their belongings and a warm place to address basic needs.

Learn more about the Impossible City here.

Photo Credit: Flickr


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