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August 2, 2013 at 6:13 AM
The need to address homelessness in the Seattle mayor’s race
Editor’s note: Osa Hale, a Western Washington University student, is an opinion intern this quarter.
I live in the University district. Every morning, on my walk to the bus stop, I encounter a few different types of people. There’s the neighbor walking the dog and taking out the trash; there are the morning joggers, and there are the people sleeping under the awning of the University Christian Church and lining up for the food bank.
There are more than 8,800 people known to be homeless in King County, according to the 2012 One Night Count, a point-in-time census conducted by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. Nearly one-third of these people are minors, and at least 400 of them are young adults.
The next Seattle mayor has the responsibility of finding the most cost-effective and thorough way to help these people. The candidates had a few things to say about that task. Everyone made it clear how complex the issue is. But it isn’t enough to talk about why it is so hard to fix this problem. Comprehensive actions need to be taken.
For example, state Sen. Ed Murray emphasized the importance of getting people into housing that meets their needs, whether that is a short-term home to get them back on their feet, or a facility that could care for individuals living with mental illness. Murray mentioned the State Housing Trust Fund, saying it was a program he has helped push money into in an effort to help the homeless. The fund has put nearly $1 billion dollars into housing projects since 1987. If elected mayor, Murray said, he would try to create a partnership that would connect the fund with the private sector and nonprofits.
Current Mayor Mike McGinn also mentioned government-funded housing efforts, explaining in a written statement that he would like to renew the Seattle Housing Levy, which was passed in 2009, and focused on making apartment buildings available to low- to moderate-income renters, including people who were formerly homeless.
Another common theme among the candidates was a need for more coordination among nonprofits, private institutions and government to help the homeless. One can only hope this is something that will be a true priority, rather than one more collection of buzzwords that gets tucked away once a leader takes office. Lance Dickie made a similar argument in his November 8, 2012 column.
Homelessness doesn’t exist in a vacuum; every city resident is touched by it in some way, and it usually is not a pleasant experience.
In 2010, the Seattle City Council was faced with an ordinance that would have banned people from a variety of panhandling offenses, including repeatedly begging after getting turned down. This rule would have had a $50 violation fee. It nearly passed; the council passed it before it was vetoed by Mayor McGinn, according to this Seattle Times news story.
Many of us have found ourselves in situations with homeless people when we have felt unsafe or annoyed. That is understandable. However, it is unreasonable to think a rule that skirts the limits of the First Amendment is the answer to the problem of street civility that naturally occurs in areas of high-density homelessness.
Treat the cause, not the outcome. Homelessness won’t be stopped by only helping people once they hit rock bottom. The mayor has a responsibility to make the city a place where people can get and keep jobs, making a living wage. City leaders must keep a watchful eye on the minimum-wage debate going on in SeaTac right now, as described in this news article from July 25.
The future mayor must also look further, and demand a greater federal safety net for low-income families and individuals. Lance Dickie weighed in on what politicians can do to pragmatically fight homelessness in this column from 2011.
This combination, of providing resources for people living on the streets and taking preventative measures with those who are on the brink of homelessness, is what Peter Steinbrueck characterized as “closing the door at the front end, and opening the door on the back end.” It attacks the problem from both sides.
Civic leaders need to make this issue a real priority. Substantial support for nonprofits that are already making a difference is the bare minimum. The future mayor should look at the problem holistically, and try to help the homeless and those hovering just above the poverty line, by putting money into the housing levy and the trust fund. While a tent city cannot last forever, the evicted residents of Nickelsville must be handled carefully, not abandoned as soon as they leave Highland Park Way. The Seattle Times editorial board expressed similar concerns in its June 16 editorial.
There may be some people who will always be homeless, who choose the life of a vagabond or who will refuse all help. But those people are in the minority. I see men and women in their 20s, my age, begging for change every day. Nickelsville was built in large part by families, couples, and people with pets, who cling to each other to maintain a shred of normalcy in a situation that was not a part of the plan. In a country where some have reached Alpine heights of wealth, it is shameful for us to turn a blind eye to those who are in the depths of poverty. Steinbrueck thinks that Seattle is a compassionate city, ready to set an example in helping the homeless. I would like to believe he is right.
If you are interested in the mayoral candidates’ positions on street civility, here are edited excerpts of their answers to a Seattle Times editorial board questionnaire. Ed Murray, Bruce Harrell and Doug McQuaid did not participate in the questionnaire.