After years of benign neglect its time to finally treat homelessness as the humanitarian crisis that it truly is

by Kay Smith-Blum

I have been an active member of our community since the early ‘80s, raising millions for education and many worthy causes as well as serving as a public official (Seattle School board 2009-13). In my four-plus decades in Seattle, I have never been more disappointed in our city and county leadership. Our neighbors are dying on our streets, suffering from drug addiction and the various substantive issues that surround chronic homelessness and yet our leaders spend millions of dollars on solutions that never scale to meet the need of individuals or the greater community.

The situation MUST be treated as the humanitarian emergency that it is. It is long past time for our region to coordinate a response to our neighbors in crisis, a crisis declared as an emergency in 2015.

If we want a better outcome, we need a new approach. A better approach starts with an immediate response to the most basic of human needs.

If we take these three steps now, we can dramatically improve the lives of those currently living in our greater community:

1. King County and Seattle should immediately designate land for sanctioned encampments with the intent of creating safe places to live while working to transition people into long term housing. We have the land. Surplus properties were identified in this article in 2018: New database: Room for thousands of affordable homes on Seattle, King County land These legal encampments must be established at sites (whenever possible) near services. An alternative/additional solution could be public/private partnerships utilizing the abundance of empty warehouses and other buildings in Seattle. These legal encampments must be managed by Seattle nonprofits that have experience in this arena. Folks should be given a choice of locations when at all possible.

2. To meet the needs of residents, these essential services should be made available at all sanctioned encampments:

Photo Credit: Genna Martin /
  • Coordinated registry (as recommended by national expert Barbara Poppe) that identifies the needs and history of residents and determines the best pathway to permanent housing.
  • Medical clinic referrals
  • Drug and mental health services 
  • Restrooms and showers
  • Solid waste dumpsters
  • Lockers for secure storage of possessions
  • Adequate security for the protection of camp residents and the surrounding community

3. The city must remove all unsanctioned encampments and allow everyone in the community to enjoy public spaces once again. Is there any truly great city in the world that employs Seattle’s strategy of homesteading in parks, greenbelts and on sidewalks? Given the alternatives we have available, there is no moral justification for this system of willful neglect. And the presence of hundreds of unsanctioned encampments on our sidewalks creates serious safety issues (ADA violations) for people with disabilities who cannot pass without stepping into busy automobile traffic.

4. We need to scale up and speed up the implementation of long term solutions. We know the long term solutions exist: requiring impact fees from developers to fund low income housing, city funded work force housing, requiring REAL affordable units within ANY and ALL apartment developments in the future and other short term strategies, such as hotel rooms and Tiny Houses, should be pursued immediately to house our neighbors in transition and create a pathway for both permanent housing and employment as well as rehabilitation where needed.

I urge our Seattle, King County and our greater community to take decisive action now.

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