A fifteen year history of our expanding homeless crisis and a call for a true emergency response

You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else — Winston Churchill

Seattle is one of the most educated, wealthy and generous places in the United States. Every year, the residents of King County spend over $1 billion on homelessness. In the City of Seattle spending has more than quintupled to a budged $167 million for 2021. Which makes it all the more difficult for community members to understand how we could have created, or failed to prevent, one of the the worst homeless crisis in the country.

Solutions are as complex and varied as the reasons that people become homeless in the first place. But the one thing that everyone who is homeless has in common is they lack shelter and many now lack any place to go where they can be supported with the basics of a warm space, hygiene services and a supportive community.

We believe it is time for a true emergency response to this crisis. We know what to do. We need to create safe, warm and hygienic, voluntary bridge shelter options such as hotel rooms, tiny home villages, pallet shelters, and sanctioned tent communities in some of the many non-parks properties available in King County. In a parallel effort, let’s rapidly build out Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) for the chronically homeless in our communities. A key to the success and acceptance of this solution is that welcoming communities regain their clean, safe, and healthy parks and public spaces.

Following is a 15 year history of goals set, efforts made, and what has so far been an ever-expanding crisis.

20052015 The Ten Year Plan to to End Homelessness fails
In 2005 King County initiated a ‘Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness‘. After ten years homelessness was growing out of control. The most visible symbol of the ten year plan’s failure was a squalid, dangerous encampment under I-5 in called “The Jungle”.

2007-2020 The “Boise Decision” creates a legal obligation to provide shelter
Courts rule, that communities cannot require a person to move from a public space if no other shelter is available.

2015 Seattle and King County declare a ‘state of emergency’
As the homelessness crisis grew, King County and Seattle declared a ‘state of emergency’. But the crisis is never treated as a true emergency.

2015 — Seattle seeks advice from consultant and national expert Barbara Poppe
Poppe and Associates recommend the city “act now, act strategically and act decisively” to address the homelessness crisis. The Pathways Home Report recommendations are organized into three categories: (1) Create a person-centered crisis response system, (2) Improve program/system performance and accountability and (3) Implement well, with urgency.

The Jungle

2016 “The Jungle” a massive encampment under I-5 becomes dangerous and is cleared.
After over 70 calls for emergency services, five shootings and two murders, an official conditions assessment is made of the encampment. The report concludes that “Conditions within the assessment area present significant public health, fire, safety, structural, and environmental risks”.

2018 — Audit highlights KC failings: scattered oversight and no overarching authority
The audit of King County’s operations highlights the way the region is failing to adequately respond to one of the nation’s most acute homelessness crises. Included in the audit is a response from King County, in which its Department of Community and Human Services pledges to implement changes over the next few years.

2018 — KC health professionals recommend a FEMA style response
The three health officials on the public board are urging it to declare homelessness a “public health disaster” and advise local jurisdictions to respond accordingly — including potentially deploying large scale FEMA-style tents as emergency shelter before the winter. Seattle Times

2018 — New database identifies thousands of surplus land parcels available in King County
The new database identifies thousands of land parcels that are already public property or owned by nonprofits. While many of those plots may already be in use, a new tool shown before a city council committee Thursday morning could help quickly locate those that could be repurposed or developed into desperately needed affordable housing. Seattle P-I

2018 — The Third Door Coalition sets a goal of housing 3,500 chronically homeless
Calling themselves the Third Door Coalition — an alternative to the two sides of the head tax fight, they say — the group has set a lofty goal of moving King County’s more than 3,500 chronically homeless residents off the streets and into permanent housing. “Solving chronic homelessness in a five year time period isn’t idly talking,” MacKay said “It’s applying the things we already know about what works and figuring out how to expedite those in a number of different ways to make that a reality.”  Crosscut

2019 — After the head tax debacle a new Regional Homeless Authority is created
The new authority will focus on unifying and coordinating the homeless response system for Seattle and King County. This will include coordination of all outreach, diversion, shelter, rapid re-housing, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing services and some of the region’s prevention efforts. 

2020 — To prevent the spread of COVID-19, shelter residents begin camping in parks
Given little direction or meaningful support, people who had been living in congregate shelters begin homesteading in parks, green belts and public spaces.

Calling the situation in many of Seattle’s large parks “a spiraling public-health and public-safety crisis,” more than a dozen business and neighborhood groups sent a letter Monday to the mayor and City Council lobbying them to act. Scores of tents have cropped up at parks across Seattle, the letter said, also arguing there has been an uptick in trash, drug use, violence and maintenance problems in outdoor spaces. The letter asked Durkan and the council to create an interdepartmental team to address the mounting challenges “These issues are complex, but that does not absolve the city of responsibility,” the letter said. Seattle Times

2020 — Solutions continue to be discussed, debated and implemented at a scale that does not match the need

Once derided as ‘shacks,’ these huts now may be our best answer for a homelessness emergency | The Seattle Times In two afternoons, Constantino and other outreach workers were able to move 10 of the people from the park into tiny houses at three different villages, in Georgetown, the Central Area and the Rainier Valley. 

An Everett company’s tiny homeless shelters pop up in Portland, more cities across U.S. | The Seattle Times In April of 2019, Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda hosted a high-profile demonstration of the shelters on the steps of city hall: Employees assembled a shelter pod in 20 minutes and Mosqueda toured them while TV crews filmed. 

New approach to sheltering homeless people during COVID-19 in Seattle shows signs of success, but funding in peril | The Seattle Times They hope to demonstrate that with the right supports — and attractive alternatives to sleeping outside — people will voluntarily leave encampments that have caused problems for neighbors and businesses and use the hotel rooms as starting points to stabilize their lives. “JustCare is a thoughtful and timely investment in a coordinated response to people experiencing homelessness,” Downtown Seattle Association Vice-President Don Blakeney said in a statement. “By providing access to hotel and motel rooms, JustCare can work with people in a safe and stable environment.” King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the county council’s budget chair, also stressed the potential health emergency posed by looming winter temperatures and flu season. 

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