November 8, 2014 – Homeless in the Neighborhood

In July 2005 Seattle and King County established a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness with the help of service and faith-based organizations as part of a national effort to address the issue.  Now, in the last of its ten years, homelessness is not ended.  And ironically enough, the problem has grown steadily over the last decade.  In the last few years, the evidence has become impossible to ignore.  People huddle in our doorways in the morning and under bridges at night.  They sleep in their cars anywhere they can park discreetly. Tents and camps spill over onto almost any level patch of green space downtown and in the neighborhoods.  Even the most dogmatic among us would acknowledge that we live in the midst of a slow-motion crisis caused by our economy, which rewards some of our neighbors richly and many others not so much.

According to the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, more than 24,000 residents will experience homelessness in any given year. On any given night in Seattle over nine thousand people will be homeless. That’s a fourteen percent increase over the last year. Not coincidentally, rent in Seattle has increased by almost eleven percent since 2010.  That’s more than any other large city in the country.

It is precisely Seattle’s increasingly unaffordable housing coupled with the failure of the ten year plan that raises the possibility of a more radical approach that looks more broadly at the issue and the range of contributors to a solution.

Ostensibly, the original plan emphasized the construction of new affordable housing and new pathways to permanent housing, while streamlining or shrinking the existing emergency shelter system.  The Committee, a “broad coalition of government, business, faith communities, nonprofits, and homeless advocates” claims some successes – for example, in developing new housing units.  But it has also been the subject of a range of harsh criticisms.  They range from relative complacency and underfunding to misguided priorities, inadequate representation on the Committee, and selective representation of its data.  For now, it is enough to point out that Seattle’s affordable housing stock still, according to advocates, falls significantly short of demand, and the number of people without shelter continues to grow. The Committee has acknowledged these developments, but none too loudly.

The larger context of the plan’s failure, conspicuously absent from the Committee’s public statements until recently, has been Seattle’s ongoing transformation into a “global city”.  Global cities (according to Saskia Sassen, who coined the term) are not defined by their “world class” amenities or standard of living.  Rather, they are cities that have come to perform key command functions of the global economy: while manufacturing is decentralized (to exploit cheaper labor markets, more permissive environmental standards, and lower taxes) throughout the globe, global cities agglomerate the informational skills and infrastructure that make that decentralization possible: telecommunications, finance, accounting, marketing, information technology, and so on.  These white-collar industries themselves depend on low-waged service industries, from janitors to restaurants, and so Sassen postulates that the distribution of income in global cities is polarized. It resembles less a normal distribution and more a camel with two humps, huddled at either end the income spectrum.

Seattle is becoming such a city.  As information technology and other white collar industries boom, imported workers rather than those that live here are part of a new economy where the median income has climbed to $70,000. The highest 20 percent of income earners averaged $248,000 per year in 2013 and the bottom 20 percent averaged just $13,000.  In global cities, the cost of living and the qualitative dimensions of the city’s life are largely dictated by the top twenty percent. Indeed, Seattle might be argued to be in the throes of what economist Harvey Molotch called the “growth machine,” as new housing in excess of demand seems to be paradoxically raising the cost of housing.  Seattle’s rising tide has not floated all the boats nor has an unprecedented rate of development slowed the rate of housing cost increases.  It would seem that growth and development, in current practice, are not natural allies with any plan to end homelessness.

The absence of this context from the city’s ten-year plan indicates a fundamentally incomplete way of thinking about homelessness and its solutions.  Indeed, the plan established its original targets without any allowance for Seattle’s potential growth, or its implications for housing development, income inequality, public spending, or the factors that contribute to homelessness.

A range of advocates have challenged flaws in the plan over the last decade, however.  For example, early on the plan’s intent to phase out emergency shelter as shelter-dwellers were moved into long-term housing was quashed as there were far more people seeking shelter beds than supply. And yet today Seattle’s $9M annual funding for nearly 2,400 shelter beds still falls short of demand, and the quality of some of the stock is in dispute.  Mayor Murray has recently appointed a taskforce to make recommendations before winter sets in.

At the urging of the recent movement by homeless activists to “Occupy the Committee to End Homelessness in King County,” the Committee has begun to include more meaningful input from shelterless people themselves, and to shift its emphasis from a singular concentration on low-income housing to a more diverse cross-section of services and constituents (from homeless youth to car campers) and even systemic root causes, such as education and jobs.

Further, others have suggested that the amount of new low-income housing reported by the Committee failed to take into account the growth of the city’s median income (low-income is defined at 30% of Area Median Income, which as stated above remains far out of the reach of the bottom twenty percent of income earners), not to mention the equally rapid loss of existing affordable housing stock to development (as for example Seattle Housing Authority cedes the land to eager developers) or as potential housing stock becomes short-term rentals.  Further exacerbating the affordable housing problem are speculative buyers capitalizing on Seattle’s distorted market.

Seattle has had a tendency to make circumstances difficult for the homeless.  Many Seattle neighborhoods are currently home to the support services for the homeless, including shelters, transitional housing, and service centers (which provide shower and laundry facilities as well as referrals to other services), as well as where faith-based institutions are beginning to provide safe places for those living in their vehicles.  But these clearly are not adequate to meet demand, and expansion of these services into neighborhoods is often met with resistance.

Tent cities, such as the Nickelsville encampments, are still found in Seattle despite Council’s failure to authorize them as “interim survival mechanisms”.   Nickelsville has been met with mixed receptions and has had limited stays, but what is emerging is a model of self-regulation and low-end cottage housing.   This “eco village” strategy was pioneered by Olympia’s Quixote Village where heated cottages with bathroom facilities are a far cheaper solution than production of apartment units in higher density zones.

The question is whether neighborhoods are inclined to be welcoming to the various range of solutions to the homeless, whether it be day services and temporary shelter housing, low cost housing solutions such as cottage and tent encampments, or low-income and permanent supportive housing projects, as well as exploring alternatives.   To help us look at this issue we will be joined by Tim Harris (Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project), Alison Eisinger (Executive Director, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness),   MJ Kiser (Program Director, Compass Housing Alliance), and Tim Ransom (Olympia’s Quixote Village).

[by David Giles and Bill Bradburd.  Based on the essay “Ten years into Seattle’s ten-year plan to end homelessness: Lessons for the next ten years” which David presented to the Relational Poverty Network conference held on October 10th, 2014 at the University of Washington]


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