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Seattle City Council debates erecting giant tents for the homeless

In this Dec. 1, 2017 photo, Verna Vasbinder prepares her her new bunk in the city's new Temporary Bridge Shelter for the homeless with her dog. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Should Seattle follow San Diego and Los Angeles and use large sprung tents to get people off the streets and on to a path to housing?

The city auditor thinks so, as do some on the city council. But in a recent budget briefing, Navigation Team chief Fred Podesta warned the city council against jumping in too quickly.

“Seeing kind of our past uptake and acceptance of offers of shelter, I think we’d need to … carefully think about are people going to accept an enormous 150-person dormitory that’s in one big tent?” Podesta said.

“We’d have to think about the design because we’ve seen different results with different kinds of offers, so before we get too bound up in the efficiency of a particular structure type, I think we really have to think about how our clients will react to it,” Podesta warned.

But Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who recently visited similar sites in Los Angeles, stressed the need for urgency.

“I don’t mean to be disparaging, director,” Mosqueda countered. “We don’t have time to think about it anymore, especially when we have examples of other cities that have already looked at what’s going on well.”

She said her visit to L.A. shows that you can create large tents that have barriers between each of the beds, that allow double beds for couples, that allow pets and that include showers and lockers and even green spaces for gardening, in addition to onsite case management – something just about everyone now agrees is vital to successfully addressing the homeless crisis.

Mosqueda pointed out most of the 500 additional shelter beds coming online are already reserved for the Navigation Team, and that other agencies the city have funded are relying on them to open new shelter beds if they aren’t opening new housing.

“I do think it’s imperative for us to open these large shelters so that we can create beds … to the hundreds,” Mosqueda said.

Podesta said he agreed with her and was not advocating for a delay — only that they should ask the homeless people they serve if they’d be willing to go to such a large tent before investing in them.

“We need to ask our clients, ‘Are you willing to go from this tent in a park to another big tent that’s a dormitory style facility?'”

He added the Navigation Team has seen mixed results with what the city has done already.

“The tiny house villages — the autonomy that those provide seem to be a real factor for people,” Podesta said.

He said there is no question the large tents are more efficient, noting they can house twice the people as a tiny house village on the same square footage. Podesta also pointed out that San Diego and other cities having success with the large tents have coupled it with intense enforcement, including compelling people to accept shelter.

A city auditor report released last week said the city should use the large tents. The current proposed budget does not include any specific money for a large tent, and it’s not clear whether that could change.

City Budget Director Ben Noble stressed to the council that the city has nowhere near the resources it needs to address the homeless crisis.

“It is true that there is not enough money for the city, on itself, to take on both the emergency crisis and the long-term affordable housing … I’m the guy about resources and I’m here to tell you there are not enough.”

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