Rearranging the deck chairs

Last year we wrote about our city and county's 10-year plan to end homelessness. That plan was weighted toward tracking the area's 6,000-8,000 homeless people, identifying who they were and their respective needs and then delivering a more finely tuned set of services to help them move off the streets.

While we lauded the energy of dozens of people from service providers, corporations and government participating in the 10-year plan, we expressed concern that it largely ignored the structural roots of the problem - the continuing loss of low-cost housing due to demolition, condominium conversion, increased rent and abandonment.

Today, one year into the plan, the effort remains fraught with the same shortcomings. If anything there are more homeless on our streets, while local government has yet to respond in any meaningful way to the consequences of gentrification and displacement. More than 1,500 low-cost rentals in Seattle were converted to up-scale condominiums last year, a three-fold increase from the previous year. Add to that about 500 more low-cost rentals demolished last year and another 1,000 low-cost units lost to "speculative sale" (speculators buying up lower-priced apartments, then raising the rents 200-300 percent.)

No wonder the number of homeless in our communities continues to climb. Until our elected leaders come up with strategies to either prevent these housing losses or ensure that developers pay the cost of replacing these units at comparable price, there will be more homeless people.

Rather than mounting a dramatic push for funding to greatly expand all our shelter and housing programs to meet the growing need, officials have chosen to rearrange the deckchairs. They decided to emphasize remedial or transitional housing programs to the detriment of emergency or overnight shelter. As a result some downtown emergency shelters saw their funds cut by several thousand dollars so the mayor could fund more transitional programs.

Transitional housing programs allow longer stays for homeless families and are coupled with various social services that improve a family's ability to remain off the street. These laudable programs benefit those lucky enough to qualify but for every one served, two or three others go without. It behooves us to spend more on such programs but not at the expense of emergency shelter. Today there are about 3000 shelter beds but over twice that number of homeless on our streets each night.

Lately, there's been much in the news about the refusal of SHARE/WHEEL, one of the area's most prominent and essential shelter programs, to provide detailed information required under a newly implemented tracking system. SHARE/WHEEL charges that this violates the privacy of its clients. The city has threatened to cut off funding for SHARE/WHEEL, which would eliminate over 200 beds. In response SHARE/WHEEL threatened to put up more tent cities across town, in addition to the two it now operates.

While it looks like local government now may compromise with SHARE/WHEEL and may even come up with more total dollars to fund new transitional programs without cuts in emergency shelter beds, it's hardly an auspicious first year for the plan.

There are inherent problems with the committee set up to implement the plan. Many committee members are service providers who focus on fine-tuning the system of service delivery and improving the "continuum of care." These "therapeutic approaches" enhance the quality of service for today's homeless but don't respond to the growing housing losses that will render even more people homeless in the future.

And how can you really get at these root causes of homelessness when the committee also includes some of those corporate elite now busy tearing down, redeveloping and gentrifying our communities? Not when we have a mayor directing our city's homeless efforts who is beholden to developers who contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars each election cycle. And not when the majority of councilmembers dutifully march to the same tune.

Last fall, the Seattle Displacement Coalition asked our city to take a more careful look at the problem of displacement and gentrification before upzoning. Rather than first assessing the added risk and building in policies to mitigate the potential for loss, the city plunged ahead and zoned large areas for higher density, most recently in downtown.

However, thanks to councilmembers Rasmussen, Steinbrueck and Licata, a small item was included in the city budget to study the problem of displacement in neighborhoods recently upzoned. The funds also are to be used to set up and staff a task force made up of citizens who will review the data and make recommendations to stem the loss of low-cost housing due to development forces. The task force is supposed to present the results of the study and its recommendations to the council before the year is out. To date, the study and the task force hasen't even gotten underway. The mayor appears to have sat on the funds and withheld authorization for staff to proceed.

Those folks from the social services and church communities and others genuinely committed to solving our homeless problem who are now participating in the ten-year planning process - perhaps their time would be better spent pressing the mayor to get off his rear end and get the study and the task force moving.

John Fox and Carolee Colter lead the Seattle Displacement Coalition. They can be reached at editor@[[In-content Ad]]