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Seattle business leaders demand leadership on homeless issue

A homeless man sleeps in Ballard. (MyNorthwest)

One of the most extraordinary events for the homeless took place on Tuesday: the annual United Way Community Resource Exchange at the CenturyLink Field Events Center in Seattle.

More than 500 volunteers and 100 service providers gathered to connect directly and provide for thousands of King County’s homeless residents.

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By 9 a.m., a line of people — men, women, teens, moms and dads with infants and toddlers — stretched around Occidental Avenue waiting to get in. Inside, they found help with housing, jobs, health care, and legal services. They had direct access to a pet grooming station, a mobile dental van, bags of groceries, bike repair, mammogram screenings, hair cuts, phone cards, clothing, a foot washing station, and plenty of hugs and smiles from the volunteers.

It was an impressive display of all the people in the community who are out there right now trying to find solutions for homelessness. It was also a reminder that our neighbors don’t get that support the other 364 days of the year.

Where is help from Seattle politicians?

“We have to commit, over time, to make this change in people’s lives for every day of their lives,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said at the Changemakers Rally.

Durkan called the crisis of homelessness and affordability the “moral challenge of our time.”

“We have to get people inside,” Durkan said. “We have to provide people homes and the services they need to stay in homes. We have to have more short-term options. It’s not acceptable for people to be living in the streets, in tents, and vehicles.”

In 2017, twice as many homeless people were put into housing as the year before, but the numbers keep going up.

More than 100 days into her role, Durkan acknowledged one thing that initially surprised her, and it’s something that many of us feel.

“I think there is an even deeper fatigue than I realized when I was running for the office across the board with everyone — from the people experiencing homelessness whether there will ever really be a change, to the service providers, to whether we really have the resources to make a difference, to the public not knowing how they can help … I have never heard anyone in all the places that I’ve been who say ‘we don’t need to do more.’ Everybody wants to do more. They want to plan. They want to see that they make a difference.

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The United Way event brought together a panel of providers and business leaders from Starbucks, Amazon, and Zillow to address what’s working and what isn’t.

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Amazon supplied bags full of groceries, socks, and toiletries, and perhaps the one thing they can do better than any other company in the region: jobs. They had a team hiring people on the spot hiring for fulfillment center positions.

“Having worked in this field for a couple of decades, I think it’s a very old frame that we used to say we’ve got to work on everything else and then do the job part last,” said Kira Zylstra from Amazon. “So we have to shift our mental model around that.”

John Kelly from Starbucks said the relationship with the Seattle City Council is a challenge.

“Unfortunately, most of the City Council doesn’t really work with us, doesn’t reach out, and is not here, by the way,” Kelly said. “They’re invited, but they’re not here.”

While that relationship is a struggle, Kelly did say the situation has changed with the new mayor.

“It’s been a breath of fresh air,” he said. “Focused leadership, compassionate … she understands the complexity of the issue. She also has experienced meeting people and going to Mary’s Place and these shelters to understand the crisis. She talks a lot about families living in cars. We never used to hear that. We finally have a mayor that is willing to talk about something that is our shame.”

This week, Mayor Durkan hosted the first meeting of the One Table initiative, which brings together her office with business leaders. Kelly says it’s crucial.

“They have largely given up on the Seattle City Council because it’s always a one-way conversation,” Kelly said. “It is very hard to rally this business community for any cause because our government keeps on targeting them as a source of funds rather than innovators and problem solvers, which is what we are.”

Something Starbucks has worked on with a lot of passion is getting kids and families off the streets, which Kelly says is still a huge problem.

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“If there was a ferry out on Puget Sound with 500 children that were slowly sinking, this city and this county would rally and go and get them,” Kelly pointed out. “We’d bring them in. We’d keep them warm. There are 500 children in King County that are sleeping in cars, in parks at the ends of quiet streets. There are hundreds of families in one of the wealthiest counties on the planet that do not have emergency shelter. If you cannot take care of the most vulnerable, if you cannot give a child emergency shelter, the complexities of opiates, of affordable housing, of race (by the way, two thirds of the families that are sleeping outside are people of color. It’s even more disproportionate.) We need focused leadership. We know the decisions, we have the (Barbara) Poppe report with all the solutions (and) the blueprint is there. We just need to act on the reform.”

Lauren McGowan from United Way says the solutions are there, but it’s a matter of acting on them.

“We have to be more decisive,” McGowan said. “As a community, we have a lot of money, we have a lot of resources. We need more. We do need more policy change and we have to do more. We have to do it quicker. We’ve got to make decisions and our current decision making structure within our homeless system isn’t allowing us to do that.”

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