By Matthew Lang
If you live in Seattle, you’ve noticed it. It’s been painfully present: the housing and homeless crisis. It’s only getting worse: the current official estimate of unhoused people living in King County is 11,600. Of that number, 5,485 of them sleep every night without shelter. Most will tell you the actual number is much larger. There seems to be little in the way of action from the mayor’s office besides to move the problem around by enacting sweeps of the camps that have sprung up in the wake of this crisis. Proposals by the city council for more sanctioned encampments and real actionable legislation on improving the methods for how homeless encampments are handled are denounced by concerned Seattleites and organizations presenting a strong “Not in my backyard” sentiment. All the while, the cost of living continues to skyrocket, and the estimated 13.5% of people living in poverty in Seattle are on the edge. Today, low-income for a family of 4 in King County is $72,000 annually for a family of 4. For a single person, $50,400 annually is low-income.
In response to the Seattle housing and homelessness crisis comes the Housing for All Coalition. This coalition of local organizations seeks to bring solutions to the table that will make positive change to the issues facing Seattle regarding housing and homelessness, recognizing that these two issues are intertwined, especially when 77% of the homeless people here once were housed in King County. The coalition is made up of organizations such as Neighborhood Action Coalition, Transit Riders Union, Stop the Sweeps, Real Change News, Columbia Legal Services, Socialist Alternative, SHARE/WHEEL, Nickelsville, and others. The platform of the coalition stands on these three tenets:
- Housing is a human right.
- Shelter now.
- Sweeps aren’t working.
The Housing For All Coalition held its launch event at the Seattle Labor Temple September 9. With over 200 in attendance, the hall was stuffy and hot, yet an energy of anticipation crackled through the air as attendees filed in. At the onset of the event, the emcee for the afternoon, Tammy Morales, guided the event through multiple speakers, some who were activists and advocates, most who had struggled at some point in their own lives with homelessness. Chants echoed through hall of “When we organize, we win!”, “Without shelter, people die!”, and “Stop the sweeps; Housing for all!” There was a feeling of solidarity in the hall that was appropriate for the temple that has for so long stood to venerate workers standing together in solidarity to fight for their rights.
Nick Hodges was called up to the podium, a middle aged father who is the PTA president at Lowell Elementary School, which serves the downtown corridor. He took the room with him through his journey of homelessness due to an injury that he had sustained, and his wife’s inability to continue on at her job with T-Mobile with him injured and the kids at home. The family was evicted, and they lived out of their car for a time, trying to get placed in housing through coordinated entry, which proved a very cumbersome process. They have now achieved housing and are moving forward with their lives, but he made it very clear that this type of family homelessness is not uncommon. In-fact, at Lowell elementary, 118 or 38% of the children enrolled come from families of homelessness. These children often do not know where their next meal is coming from except from the school. Homed children are confused because their friends may one day just disappear due to the displacing action of homeless sweeps. Uncertainty in these children’s lives leads to problems in the classroom, and sets them up for failure. There is only one case worker assigned by the school district to work with all of these children and get them the necessary services.
Harold Odom, an older African-American man spoke about his experience having lived in unauthorized encampments. After having been swept for the first time, Harold was exposed to a bacteria in his new encampment. He contracted an infection in both feet while living here. He waited to go to the doctor because he did not want to look homeless at the hospital. When he finally went to the hospital, the infection had spread enough that it was life threatening, and parts of his toes had to be amputated to save him. He now lives in Nickelsville Georgetown, and is living in a tiny house within the community. He went to visit his former encampment, and was surprised to see how many people had returned to the same place after having been swept three times already. Odom says, “You can sweep a place, but if [the homeless people don’t have a place to go, they will just come back.” He feels very fortunate that he was able to get himself out of that cycle, but this testimony speaks volumes to how the sweeps are currently being conducted. People are being displaced without reasonable alternatives.
Camps like Nickelsville are working to get people off the streets. Since 2016, 6 such Camps have been built to the tune of $755,500 in annual expenses. So far, 759 people have been served by this program, which provides necessary services (bathrooms, cooking areas, etc.) and case management to the people who live there. If all of the people who are living unsheltered were resettled into these sanctioned encampments, the total annual cost would be $5,459,706, merely 11% of the city’s annual budget to combat homelessness.
Encampments were not the only types of living situations that were described. There are many homeless people whose only form of shelter is their vehicle. George Sidwell, a man with a great white beard donning overalls, is one of those. He has lived in his van for the past 16 months. He works every day selling papers for Real Change News, and is saving up so that he can again afford housing. He also works in the Seattle area as a homeless advocate. He said, “Luckily my van, my home, has only been towed once.” He explained that when his van was towed, he was given no notice, and there was nothing left behind for him to know how to retrieve it. He had to take an entire day off of work, and dip into his hard earned savings to come up with the $400 necessary to retrieve his vehicle from impound. People who live in their vehicles are especially vulnerable to getting ticketed or towed when they park on the streets, setting these folks up for a debt trap that they can ill afford. For many homeless people that live in their vehicles, that vehicle is not just home, but their last remaining valuable asset. More safe park locations and more ethical ticketing/towing policies need to be created so that these people can live without the fear of losing their shelter at any moment.
Sean Smith, a board member of SHARE, led a powerpoint presentation which contained homeless data on Seattle. The city currently plans to build 6,000 units of 0 – 30% Area Median Income (AMI) housing over the next 10 years. Projections estimate we will need 24,000 units by then. . He spoke of the rapid re-housing program. Though it seems like a nice concept, rapid re-housing gives homeless people vouchers to help with their rent for 3 – 9 months, and then they are completely responsible for their rents. It’s meant to be a program that lifts people to a homed status and make homelessness a short and one time occurrence. It actually sets homeless people up for failure by setting an unrealistic expectation for families to go from $0 to anywhere from $2500 to over $5000 in housing costs, depending on the area. When the voucher period ends, many of them wind up right back on the streets. The Housing for All Coalition is calling for long-term vouchers that remove that housing shock from the process.
Sean spoke about why homeless people don’t just go to a shelter instead of sleeping outside. 37% of homeless people, when polled, say that the shelters are already too crowded. 27% say they are full. 23% say that they don’t go because they aren’t able to bring their family or partner. Another 17% answer that they will not go because their pet isn’t welcome. More shelters are needed, but plans for Mayor Ed Murray’s 24-hour shelter proposal have been indefinitely delayed, and no other plans are in place to build more.
After Sean’s presentation, Tammy Morales took the stage to address the rising cost of housing. She railed on the explanation that housing costs are rising and only new luxury apartments are being built, because that is what the market will bear. She poignantly posited that perhaps the market is not fully representing the city that it serves. In a study done by Zillow every 5% increase in median rent throughout the city drives 258 more people into homelessness.
From the Neighborhood Action Coalition District 3 (Capitol Hill) came Charlie Warden. Charlie is a queer individual who experienced homelessness as a youth. They spoke about their experience living on the streets. Being turned away from shelters because they didn’t have their parent with them. Charlie described how as an unhoused person at night they had move from sleeping place to sleeping place, constantly being asked to “move along.” This lack of consistent sleep left Charlie exhausted and unable to establish themselves. Charlie would then spend all of a day trying to find a way to eat and take care of their basic human needs. Compounded with the lack of quality sleep, this experience left them with little bandwidth for anything else. Even starting the process to find any form of housing seemed daunting. This constantly being swept from place to place destroyed any sense of stability they may have been able to achieve, and put them in an unsafe situation as they had to continually adjust to new environments. Charlie expressed that the Neighborhood Action Coalition believes that everyone deserves dignity and stability. That housing is a right, not a privilege. That the unhoused in Seattle do not only constitute a state of emergency, but a humanitarian crisis.
Manuel Carrillo of the Socialist Alternative spoke out as well. His organization is calling for long-term solutions, not just sweeping the problem under the rug, moving a person who is already in an unstable situation into further instability. He proposed that when a person must leave their current place of residence due to rent increase, that the landlord should have to pay the cost of moving.
After the speakers had concluded, the audience was asked to stay and break into smaller groups for discussion about the issues. In these small groups, there was a great diversity of people representing a wide spectrum of groups. From the Neighborhood Action Coalition, to a former Black Panther turned Labor activist , to a young woman from the Tech Workers Coalition, to members from the Transit Riders Union, to representatives from the LGBTQIA+ community. There were many different perspectives, young and old, and some new to others that led to a greater understanding of what the coalition is facing. One thing is certain: the work is only beginning, and the Housing for All Coalition will not stop until Seattle is able to support sustainable, affordable housing for all people who live here.
Here’s what you can do to help build a solution in Seattle!
Action Meeting: Saturday, September 16 (Meetings will be held every Saturday)
2:00 – 6:00 PM @ Frye Apartments, 223 Yesler Way
Come hear a campaign update, write letters to elected officials, meet fellow volunteers, do some useful work, discuss what’s next, and get involved with a team organizing in your area.
Volunteer with the Housing for All Coalition
Write a letter to your city council member