When I am out canvassing, neighbors share a variety of concerns with me, but the number one topic I hear about hands down is homelessness. Over and over, I hear our neighbors say “We have to do something. I don’t know what the answer is, but we have to do SOMETHING.” I hear genuine concern for those living in unsanitary conditions and those struggling with addiction, and I hear frustration at the lack of shelter options for people with varying needs, fear about ever-rising housing costs. Research and data show us what the answer is, and clearly, we as a city have a lot of work to do.
Homelessness is a symptom of many overlapping failing systems. Our justice system criminalizes being homeless, and yet, it also releases people directly back into homelessness, vulnerable to further contact with the police. Research shows that 44% of people released from Dept. of Corrections facilities in Washington go straight into homelessness. To make matters worse, in many cases a longer jail stay can actually render one ineligible for homeless services. Our approach to public safety around homelessness cannot be to arrest our way out of it, as our own Police Chief acknowledges; however, as it stands we have not adequately invested in other options including expansion of law enforcement diversion programs into District 4.
The relationship between healthcare and homelessness is equally devastating. One health-related crisis and the associated costs can catapult an otherwise stable family into financial disarray and debt, often leading to the loss of their home. Once homeless, a person is far less likely to get the care and treatment they need, be it for a chronic physical health or a behavioral health condition. The 2019 Point in Time Count survey found that 64% of people experiencing homelessness are living with at least one health condition, and 37% live with a disabling condition preventing them from holding a job or taking care of their basic needs. This has tragic consequences, as research has shown that homelessness reduces a person’s life expectancy by roughly 20 years. Just last year in Seattle, 122 people died on our streets. The median age was 54.
Everyone deserves a stable place to call home. If we can’t make policies that control the cost of housing and provide thousands more affordable homes to people on very low and fixed incomes, we will not make a dent in supporting our neighbors experiencing homelessness. Research has proven that a $100 increase in average rental price correlates with a 15% increase in the rate of homelessness. Over the last decade in Seattle, unmitigated housing speculation has resulted in a private market where only those with high incomes and clean rental records can participate. Now, just to afford an average one-bedroom apartment in Seattle, a family must earn $75,960 per year. That’s roughly double the paycheck of a typical retail salesperson, case manager, or Uber driver and doesn’t factor in a family’s other necessary costs such as transportation, childcare, and food. It also makes families much more susceptible to becoming evicted, which can lead them directly into homelessness. Once you have an eviction on your record, the barriers to accessing another home substantially increase.
District 4 has unique challenges. On my route to campus everyday, I pass Tent City 3, which will soon be forced to once again find a new location. Only blocks away, one of our young adults’ mainstay shelters faces displacement as their building is being sold. Meanwhile, our city continues to invest $10 million per year in forcibly moving people living unsheltered from place to place, a process which is destabilizing and has shockingly few regulations. How can people ever feel secure enough to recover from the trauma of homelessness when not only are they being forced into remote corners of the city or into jail cells, but their services are uprooted as well?
District 4 needs someone who will fight for well-funded solutions that get at the root of the problem, not wasteful and ineffective responses. As your city council member I will fight to:
- Increase Permanent Supportive Housing to End Chronic Homelessness: Seattle has been on the forefront of solutions to housing instability for decades. Leveraging Housing First principles to provide permanent supportive housing, highly subsidized homes with supportive services for those with higher needs, has been shown to be one of the most cost-effective and compassionate ways to lift people out of homelessness. Recent local research has confirmed this and shown that permanent supportive housing can reduce drinking in formerly homeless people with alcohol use disorder. We must invest heavily in this solution.
- Expand LEAD in the U District: Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program is highly successful in diverting people with a substance use disorder away from the harmful criminal justice system and toward treatment services and housing. LEAD has been replicated in other cities across the country, and our urgent opioid crisis demands a scaling up of this program to District 4. We should also expand the types of offenses that can be diverted into LEAD. The PBS Frontline special “Chasing Heroin” provides great insight into how LEAD works.
- Fund Rental Assistance Programs to Prevent Homelessness: It’s not that Seattle isn’t getting people out of homelessness. The problem is that, while we are housing increasingly more people each year, over 17,000 new instances of homelessness also occur annually. We have to invest in preventative solutions like the Housing Justice Project’s HOME Fund, which provides legal aid and fiscal help to folks facing eviction, and scale up city-backed diversion funds.
- Protect the dignity of our unhoused neighbors: We must provide adequate garbage services and restroom access to encampments until we have sufficient permanent housing. We must support shelter options that keep families together and enable 24 hour access like expanding tiny house villages, housing first apartment models, and legalized lot use for those sleeping in cars.
Homelessness is not intractable. Other cities around the country have leveraged best practices with real investments and have seen results. I am committed to a systems-level approach that scales up our successes and reforms approaches that cause more harm than good. This effort will take work from all of us, and as your future District 4 Councilmember, I look forward to working with you.