One thing that remains true about identifying and implementing solutions – both temporary and permanent – for the homelessness crisis is that creativity is key. Sometimes it takes a while, but we can typically get there in Seattle. While encampments as a temporary safe space were initially shot down, for instance, we now have authority for up to three in Seattle. Seattle is moving forward with Safe Lots for car and RV campers. And Low Income Housing Institute recently opened a Tiny House Village, providing fifteen safe spaces for people to live in.
While the historical approach to immediate safe shelter needs has focused on emergency shelters, these longer-term, community oriented options are working in a way that a mat on a floor never will. Yes, there are many who would prefer the traditional shelter model, but there are just as many who would rather sleep in a tent than a shelter. The concern is real – evidence suggests that some will abuse younger folks experiencing homelessness in shelters, or steal their stuff. Close proximity, often without shower or laundry facilities, opens greater opportunity for transmission of disease and lice. Add in the limitation of hours, and a lack of space to store belongings, and shelters, while many with stable housing view as an easy solution, are not that appealing.
The news from King County that there will be an increase of investment to combat homelessness is good news. Investments in emergency shelter beds are great, as is the addition of 237 affordable housing units. I can only hope that the county does not rely on the historical barriers we place on that housing, however. And expect to see the creativity added that we are using in Seattle. This comes two and a half years after the argument was made against increasing investments that help residents experiencing homelessness due to a lack of similar steps being taken by the county and other cities. It is a big step in the right direction.
This past weekend, I met up with my friend Sally Bagshaw, and we took a walk from downtown up to the Tiny House Village in the Central District. She insisted on walking. Uphill. Both ways.
It was a great walk, however. One of the things that I truly appreciate about the Seattle City Council (well, most members) is the genuine desire to talk, listen, and have a conversation. While we may not always agree, the aim of identifying a workable solution is ever-present.
Something that is really sticking out when we talk about homelessness today – for the most part – is the recognition that addiction is not a criminal issue, but rather a health issue. While there remains a (vocal) minority that believes those experiencing addiction deserve to be left on the streets, the tide is changing in favor of Housing First. Those who work and advocate specifically on the issue have long recognized that forcing services before housing means more people stay on the street. Removing barriers, and ensuring people have a safe place to sleep has a huge community benefit, not to mention individual benefit for those being served.
Of course, with at least 2,942 people living without shelter in Seattle alone (not including those in emergency shelter, couch surfing, or other unstable housing), we would be foolish to think we can just provide enough places for folks to live overnight. Through various constitutional and legal limitations, not to mention financial constraints, it's just not going to happen. But the planning and groundwork can begin now.
Some approaches for more long-term stable housing could well include the microhousing model. While this has created consternation in some parts of Seattle, the reality is that not only is there a market for people who want to live in tiny spaces, but this is a way we can build, at low-cost, housing units for long-term housing of singles, while maintaining the community of tent cities. One federal barrier is a requirement for each unit to have a kitchen, but how that is defined remains an open question. Why wouldn’t a fridge, toaster-oven, and hot plate count? And, frankly, there would be no need to worry about parking – a common concern.
Of course, until we reach that point, we must ensure that the immediate-term band-aides are in place. Currently we allow for three encampments and two safe lots. This clearly needs to be increased. If the city is going to engage in encampment clean-ups that don’t just address trash, waste, and needles, but also include forcing people out of a space that is safe for them, then there must be a place available for people to go.
Large-scale encampments require a 5,000 square foot lot, which limits how much surplus and unused city property can be used. However, collaborating with LIHI, and with adequate funding, we can work to scatter small tiny house villages across the city on bus lines and near services. At a cost of $2,400 delivered, these spaces can house up to two adults, are insulated, have windows, and have heat. A significant step up from a tent, and, being mobile, a step-up that can be moved as needed and reused as needed for years.
During our walk, Sally and I visited the Tiny House Village, and spoke with some residents. The gentlemen at the check-in spoke about how grateful he was at the generosity of our city. The welcoming neighborhood, the investment, and the opportunity for him to get on his feet and ideally get into permanent housing. For now, he is part of a community that is welcoming to him and his husband, and being welcomed by the neighborhood. He does hope that the Village can do some vegetable gardening in Spring and Summer.
We also spoke with a woman who was hoping to catch Lady Gaga sing the Star Spangled Banner before the Super Bowl. She had been homeless and in and out of shelters, until she found Nickelsville and, ultimately, had moved into the village. She also had a small dog, and it was clear they had a bond. He is 16 years old, and followed her and stayed right close to her the entire time we were speaking. With a small house, the ability to wash, and a place and community to look after her little guy, she was excited to look for work. She, too, would like to get into some gardening, and also grow plants to liven up the village.
This model isn’t perfect, but it’s continuing the creativity that we can and must apply as we address the homelessness crisis. And by providing safe spaces, we will save money. We will give people opportunity to climb out of poverty. We will be able to work to train people how to build things. And we all learn how to build stronger community.