It is the middle of winter and it’s too cold for anyone to stay outside all night.
Seattle, King County and suburban city leaders wanted a cohesive strategy for solving the homeless crisis. One agency with a director to house all the services for the homeless and replace what they thought was some unnecessary duplication and a delivery system that didn’t always seem connected. That will mean replacing Seattle and King County staff who have been working on these problems, although some Seattle or county staff may end up in the new agency.
The state Legislature gave counties and cities authority to levy one-tenth of 1 percent in sales tax countywide to help with funding. Cities could stay with the regional plan or levy their own tax if they chose, but would be required to spend 60% of the proceeds to construct affordable housing and 40% on human services. For those supporting the countywide initiative, a board of directors with city and county members would oversee the director. Homeless residents would also be represented on the board. It was envisioned the new agency would be in place in 2020.
But several things got in the way of that time table. The biggest roadblock was the coronavirus, which made meetings difficult and may have actually added to the homeless numbers. Some cities felt like they were not included in the discussion of what the new agency would look like, but there were other areas of disagreement.
Chief among those: King County, Seattle and the suburbs simply don’t look at the world the same way. Seattle is the central city with the most resources, but also the most challenges. While the county thinks regionally, Seattle and the county sometimes forget that suburban cities don’t answer to either, and want to retain control of what goes on inside their city limits.
Many suburban leaders would love to have some of the amenities that Seattle has, but some don’t want to look like Seattle with its homeless villages along the freeway. Other suburban leaders are leery of improving their services to the homeless for fear of attracting Seattle’s homeless. Still others just want the homeless to be go away and be someone else’s problem.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has expanded shelter capacity by 20% and believes Seattle is carrying too much of the burden. Although many homeless do not move very far from the community they lived in prior to becoming homeless, according to the county’s homeless database in 2019, 20% of people staying in Seattle’s shelters became homeless elsewhere.
In a recent story in the Seattle Times, Durkan, in reference to the suburbs, was quoted as saying: “Frankly they’re going to have to start shouldering more of the burden.”
Some suburban jurisdictions believe their homeless are their responsibility and work at trying to meet their needs. Other city leaders have different priorities.
Eight cities including Bellevue, Issaquah, Snoqualmie, North Bend, Renton, Kent, Covington and Maple Valley chose to levy their own tax and use the money within their city, rather than participate in the new regional plan. Affordable housing is in short supply in most cities.
Shelters where the homeless all sleep on mats in a large room is no longer safe due to COVID-19. Separate rooms are safer. King County bought several hotels throughout the county with the sales tax money, including in Kent and Renton. The Kent hotel was planned as a quarantine location for COVID-19 homeless and as a long-term option for the chronically homeless. It is not clear what conversations occurred between the county and Kent, but it was not a smooth process. Kent has several nonprofits that have helped with sanitizer and personal protective equipment. In addition to the county facility, there is also KentHope and Catholic Community Services.
The Red Lion Hotel in Renton was also purchased by the county to house the homeless. But an outbreak caused some of the homeless to be moved to the Kent location. It also led to a negative community reaction, and the Renton City Council passed an ordinance to move half the people out of the Red Lion by mid-year and the rest by the end of the year.
Auburn is planning to continue to work with the county. The city operates a Resource Center and an overnight shelter. They were able to get additional funding from the Legislature with the assistance of Rep. Pat Sullivan and are in the process of setting up a community court to connect with homeless people who have court issues. Other resources including the food bank will become part of the Resource Center in the future.
Some cities send police officers to get the homeless off public property or private property, although some of the homeless may be fearful of police. Those cities may think having a non-threatening civilian rather than police is unimportant. But as cities evaluate what services their police departments can afford in the future, civilian assistance may become more common. Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus hired civilian staff person Kent Hay to work with the homeless. He also runs the Resource Center, keeps track of the homeless and helps connects them to the services they need whether it is food, court, shelter or something else.
Churches and non-profits have been helping the homeless with food and shelter. But city government has not been as welcoming in Federal Way. They send police to remove the homeless from public property and urge the landlords to remove them from private property. City Hall didn’t appreciate a suggestion that the city budget provide soap, water, hand sanitizer and masks along with outdoor bathroom facilities — rather than complain about the mess left by the homeless.
Local nonprofits such as FUSION have helped families with shelter needs, and the city did give money to Reach Out to help with staffing at the Day Center. They also supported Catholic Community Services with some rent money. Under strict criteria, the city could open the Federal Way Community Center for warming, but they won’t support opening Dumas Bay, even though it is built much like a hotel, and with a shuttle service between Dumas Bay and the Day Center, the homeless would be able to connect with the services they need.
Tacoma has opened three shelters, one of which is just across the city line from Federal Way at Norpoint. Some Federal Way neighbors are concerned about the impact, but City Hall doesn’t anticipate a problem and refers them to the mayor and council in Tacoma. However, the concept Federal Way leaders could be open to is the county buying a hotel in Federal Way.
All jurisdictions need to work together to solve the homeless challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic has simply made the task harder. The county needs to buy more hotels and the cities need to provide warming centers during the day and rental assistance at night — and both need a sense of urgency to guide them, or it will be just another wasted winter hoping people don’t freeze to death.
Rents have increased in Seattle and parts of the Eastside, while Auburn is up 3.8%, Federal Way is up 3.5% and Kent is up 1.3%. For some cities, using their new sales tax might be seen as a way to avoid partipating with the county plan, but the affordable housing they will construct may help some families stay in their homes.
The key may be providing rent assistance before a family becomes homeless. That may include child care for the working poor. The resources are there to solve this problem and a regional director was recently hired. All that’s left to solve the problem is political will.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.