You see the signs in the workplace. You hear the ads on the radio. “Let’s have zero work-related injuries this year!” “We want zero traffic deaths in our state in 2016!”
No agency ever uses those kinds of slogans for preventing homeless people from dying — it’s quite the opposite. Quantifiable data points are important. Survival? Not so much.
That’s the baseline for Seattle’s failed efforts to address its chronic and rapidly expanding homeless population. This month, the same tension has been driving the latest — perhaps final — skirmish between King County and the longtime emergency shelter organization SHARE.
A broken system
In 2000, the National Alliance to End Homelessness released its report “A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in 10 Years.” The report advocated shifting public resources from emergency shelters, instead creating more transitional and permanent housing. It quickly became, and has remained, the blueprint for federal funding priorities.
In 2005 King County, following the new federal guidelines, announced its 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. More than a decade later, the plan has been a dismal failure. King County’s annual One Night Count in January 2006 registered 1,946 people living on the streets; in January 2016, that number was 4,505, up 132 percent.
Nobody is even officially counting the number of homeless who’ve died — at least 67 in 2015 alone. It’s nearly impossible to get an accurate number, but it’s clearly rising.
In 2016, it’s quite possible that the number of new “service-enriched units” created by All Home (the 10-Year Plan’s rebranded, less-derision-provoking name) will exceed the number of people who die on the streets.
Homelessness hasn’t ended. Instead, it’s getting vastly worse.
Enter SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort), the main provider of low-barrier, no-frills emergency shelters in Seattle. In fall 2014, King County officials, following federal guidelines, denied a renewal of SHARE’s county funding in favor of suburban shelters that served far fewer people at much higher cost but offered comprehensive case management services in line with federal guidelines.
SHARE’s cash-flow crisis was compounded by the city — the source of half of SHARE’s annual shelter budget — only providing its funding by reimbursing expenses after it had been paid for by SHARE. By this February, SHARE was publicly warning that it was amassing unsustainable debts and would need to close its shelters without additional money.
On March 21, SHARE announced it would need to close its shelters at month’s end without additional funds. And on March 31, it did, relocating to a plaza next to the King County Administration Building in hopes of pressuring the county into releasing funds.
SHARE’s protest encampment, Tent City 6, has been overflowing with homeless residents ever since. County and city officials — and other private sector advocates as well — have been eviscerating SHARE for, essentially, not getting with the federal program, and much of the local media coverage has followed suit.
SHARE has been criticized for not honoring its contract with the city (even though it’s broke), for “playing politics” with a “hostile protest” that “uses the homeless as pawns” by closing shelters “with no notice” and much more.
Allies have been scarce. Most, it seems, have gotten with the official program, even though it has been a demonstrable failure locally.
The accusations are both familiar and hotly denied by SHARE, which points to a years-long stack of correspondence with the county as evidence that the current crisis was neither abrupt not unexpected; strongly denies accusations that residents have ever been required to protest to stay in shelter; and notes that its decision to mount the Tent City 6 protest was made by homeless residents themselves, who would then hardly count as pawns.
Not a game
Meanwhile, the demand that SHARE get inside the official Housing First tent by changing its mission from emergency shelter to lining up housing for the unhoused seems deeply disingenuous. It’s rather like criticizing the Seahawks for not winning any baseball games.
Only this isn’t a game; it’s survival. Homeless people absolutely need programs that provide housing and the services that make it possible for them to access it. But they also need to get out of the rain and cold.
Both types of services are critical, but only one is now considered fundable. Creating affordable housing is vastly more expensive than providing a roof and a safe space, and it’s impossible to build enough units to house everyone.
Meanwhile, SHARE remains broke, and most of its shelters remain closed, victims of a failed, yet now-ubiquitous approach whose PowerPoint charts aren’t much consolation to people sleeping outside tonight. Almost certainly, at some point, at least one of them will die.
GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.