According to the information released today, there are nearly 3,900 unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in our city. That’s heartbreaking and unacceptable. There is no question that homelessness is one of the most significant issues facing our city today, and if elected mayor, I will make it a priority.
We must find ways to move people off the streets and out of cars and RVs and into homes. This is a complicated problem with many causes; that means we have to look at a number of solutions. Above all else, homeless families and individuals need a safe and stable home. Removing barriers to permanent housing requires not just shelter alternatives, but also requires tackling a variety of challenges, including employment, stable schooling for kids, and addiction and mental health services. I am committed to smartly directing city resources while working with service providers, caring philanthropists, communities, individuals and businesses dedicated to finding solutions.
Here are three immediate steps we should take to address this growing crisis as we work on the longer-term solutions.
1. We must provide more emergency shelter immediately. We should have an immediate goal of 50 to 100 additional beds in each City Council district, which would provide a safe alternative to sleeping on the streets each night to as many as 700 additional people. This could be accomplished through opening one community center in each council district (or community centers in high homelessness neighborhoods) during non-operating hours as shelters for the homeless families. We have seen that community centers have effectively served as places for hygiene services in their off-hours. Some districts may have better or more immediate solutions — like partnering with other faith and community groups — but we need to do it now. This is about providing respite and safe places for people living on our streets while we continue to reform and get shelters online that lead to better, long-term outcomes.
2. We are seeing a substantial rise in the number of people living in cars and RVs in Seattle, including many homeless families. These populations are reluctant to move into emergency shelters because they already have a roof over their heads. They also tend to have less severe barriers than those living on the streets or in unauthorized tent encampments. This makes them good candidates for diversion opportunities or, in some cases, rapid rehousing(moving them directly into housing that comes with a shorter term three- to six-month rent subsidy as their underlying problems are addressed and stabilized).
The compassionate and effective work of our current Navigation Teams shows the importance of specially trained, interdisciplinary approaches. I propose establishing a dedicated Navigation Team of specially trained police officers and social workers targeted directly at doing outreach to those living in cars and RVs (perhaps two officers and two social workers). The specialized Navigation Teams would work to mitigate quality of life, health and environmental issues, while identifying appropriate candidates for rapid rehousing or other specific services, including mental health and addiction treatment services. We need to focus on those people living with kids in vehicles. We have to partner with our schools and social services to get those kids in a stable living and school environment, so they do not fall further behind.
3. We must commit to exploring with KingCounty a regional consolidation of homelessness services under one roof. Homelessness is a regional problem that needs a regional solution. This approach would reduce administrative overhead and better coordinate service delivery. The current fragmented and siloed aspects of the system — with the County doing the bulk of mental health, while the City handles the bulk of the shelter for single homeless adults — could be streamlined.
We know that people experiencing homelessness are our neighbors, and that those suffering need compassionate solutions and are disproportionately people of color, those who identify as LGBTQ (especially among the youth population), and have a history of domestic violence abuse or experience with foster care. This crisis continues to grow and we must take immediate steps to help get people off the streets and into safe housing.