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Consultant: We can’t just lock up Seattle’s homeless

Seattle homeless consultant Barbara Poppe called out the City of Seattle for failing to hold providers accountable during a forum held this week.

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Poppe said Catherine Lester, who is in charge of human services for the city, has a problem with calling out organizations that aren’t performing well.

“Unfortunately, when Catherine and her team have come forward with recommendations to not fund organizations because they haven’t performed, there’s a backdoor that happens,” Poppe said. “And that backdoor has been the city council goes back over those recommendations and funds those under-performing programs.”

In the audience, Ben Barnes, a city employee who described himself as liberal, said he tries to help the homeless out when he can, but he’s frustrated. He said there are real criminal issues and absolutely nothing happens when he calls 911, which is what city leaders always say to do.

“Maybe the solution isn’t making camping on the streets illegal,” he said. “But there’s illegal activity going on now. There’s drug activity. There’s prostitution. There’s public urination. There’s public defecation. There’s littering. They’re blocking sidewalks.

“The police do nothing for any of this. They do nothing. We talked to them. The police officers say, there’s nothing we can do; we don’t want do it. We don’t want to address the drug dealers because they’re just going to be back on the street. We don’t want to clean this up because they’re going to be back the next day. I don’t know what to do.”

Even as a person who is sympathetic to the problems of the homeless, he’s fed up.

“I was sympathetic for a long time, then after a while that sadness … turns to anger and the anger says, OK, I can’t solve this problem,” he continued. “I’m getting older faster than this is getting better. So you know what, I don’t want it here. I want to walk out the door and not hate what I see. When we talk to [Homeless Director] George Scarola or the mayor or anybody on the city council, I don’t feel like they’re being honest with us. So what do we do?”

Catherine Lester with Seattle’s Health and Human Services responded.

“The Navigation teams are sort of a new way of really thinking … we have specially trained social workers with specially trained police officers who are going out to places where there are significant public safety and public health issues,” she said. “The linchpin though is always going to be some place permanent as an option for where people go.”

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That’s the problem: King County has been able to place 100 families per month into permanent housing. At the same time, 250 families per month are losing their housing.

That’s the missing piece. If we could stop people who are now being housed from losing their homes, the problem would start to disappear.

Can’t just lock ’em up

Poppe says it’s important to remember why we can’t simply round up everyone living on the streets and lock them up.

“Criminalizing the act of homelessness because there are no other places for people to go is really a violation of our basic human rights,” she said.

Adrienne Quinn with the King County Department of Human Services explained they we’re able to house 7,500 people last year.

“Through this community were able to house 7,500 households over this past year, so almost more than double the number of people counted as unsheltered in the point and time count.”

Sounds like a lot — but people are losing their homes faster than ever.

“We need to be having 250 families placed per month. Individuals [numbers] are higher,” Quinn said. “We have 7,500 assessed right now waiting for housing through coordinated entry. And we are able to 100 placements a month based on the housing units available, which are largely non-profit housing units. And so without a for-profit partnership, we don’t have units to place people.”

Quinn says we need to reach out to the people who are losing their housing before they end up on the streets.

“We have 27 agencies that have funding to prevent people from becoming homeless and so it’s many of the non-profit organizations — folks can call 211 if they’re in a crisis. Oftentimes what happens … people wait too long and they wait until there’s an eviction.”

The landlord issue

Once they are there, especially if they’ve been evicted, one of the biggest problems in providing housing for people who are currently homeless is finding landlords and property management companies willing to rent to the homeless.

Many have bad credit, arrest records, unreliable employment, and other issues that make landlords reluctant to give them a place to stay.

“They are not the most attractive tenants but they can be good tenants,” Quinn said. “That’s why we have a mitigation fund. Landlords are looking at do I rent to someone working at Starbucks or Amazon right now, or this person who did three tours in Afghanistan and they’ve got kind of a shoddy work background … but now they’re making $10 an hour outside of Seattle. They’re not as attractive. And so we need a commitment from the community.”

It comes down to reducing barriers to housing by changing how people qualify for housing.

So the city is trying to reach out to landlords, providing them a kind of insurance should such tenants default on rent or damage the property.

Lauren McGowan with United Way says they, along with the city, are working on a “landlord liaison” project to find ways to meet rental property owners halfway.

“We are in the planning phases right now of thinking about what are the incentives that we need for those landlords and property owners,” McGowan said. “What is the screening criteria, and what else is going to bring more people into the fold so that it is as coordinated and as quick as possible so we can do that matching… so we can quickly get them connected to a landlord in our community.”

The Bottom line: if we want the homeless off the streets, we can’t just move them around and create a problem elsewhere. It needs to be a community and business effort as well — not just a blitzkrieg of social services. That means all of us need to look in our neighborhoods and our apartment buildings and realize the homeless aren’t going away; they can either be our neighbors in homes or our neighbors on the streets.

But landlords and property owners have to be on board. Barb Poppe made sure to emphasize that for all the efforts we can undertake through government programs, social services, and business-community partnerships, the issue is never going away if we can’t figure out the largest contributor to homelessness.

“Do not forget that the most important piece of work as a community you need to do is preserve the existing affordable rental housing, build new affordable rental housing, and make it possible to have greater density in your community.”

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