Longtime homeless camp along Green River becomes focus of proposed pilot program

Jun 29, 2022, 8:21 PM

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn

In the roughly seven years since the homeless emergency was declared in Seattle and King County, millions of dollars have been thrown at the problem.

The various administrations and councilmembers have all left their mark. One thing they all share – some responsibility for the homeless crisis only getting worse despite those millions of taxpayer dollars being spent.

Now we have the fairly new Regional Homelessness Authority handling the majority of the homeless response and is responsible for spending the bulk of what Seattle budgets for the issue.

The RHA recently suggested it would need a 75% increase in its second-year budget compared to its initial year to properly address the issue, though the organization admitted it was not likely to get that.

Report: Chronic homelessness reaches crisis levels in King County

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn says before that kind of money is handed over, let’s see some results and be sure what we’re doing is working.

Dunn believes there is a disconnect between clearing homeless campers and getting them into housing and other services they need, and until that’s addressed, he says nothing will be resolved.

That’s what’s driving his latest proposal at the council to create a pilot program that starts with a task force specifically focused on how to get the dozens to hundreds living tucked behind the greenery on a steep hillside across from the Green River in between Kent and Auburn connected with housing and services and out of the woods.

Dunn believes the problem thus far has been the lack of coordination among the agencies that work to address homelessness.

“There’s a patchwork, you have no one talking to each other, you have an enormous amount of money spent on the problem. And yet, we’re not transitioning that into successes. In terms of our numbers on the street, the only real metric that matters is how many homeless folks are living out on our streets or in our woods in King County. And it’s not about how many people are in a shelter or how many meals were served, right? That’s a reflection of other issues. The question is how many folks are living out on the streets, and this is Exhibit A from what is a series of failed policies on homelessness, not just in Seattle, but in King County,” said Dunn as he led reporters up the steep hill sprinkled with dozens of encampments he hopes his legislation can clean up.

And he says it’s not just about “sweeping” people out because neighbors complain. Dunn and King County Sheriff’s Deputies, who regularly work the hillside and helped lead media through it on Tuesday, agree – allowing humans to live like this is deplorable, unacceptable, and cannot be allowed to continue.

We met one woman, Deborah, who was living in her van across from the hillside and has been homeless for only a few months, not because of any addiction or mental health issues, but because when the eviction moratorium was lifted, her rent from $900 a month to $1,800 and that simply was not doable.

She never in her life expected to be homeless. At first, she went to the emergency congregate shelters, but that proved problematic.

Dunn says part of the job of the task force created in his legislation would be to determine how best to use a carrot and stick approach so that once there is sufficient housing and efforts to clear a camp are made there is a plan in place for those who refuse to leave and must be forced out. But he says whatever that looks like will still have to be humane and compassionate.

It’s unclear if he’ll have the votes to get this proposal any movement. A similar proposal last year nearly passed, but under a different makeup at the council. At the very least, this gets the conversation going.

The task force would create the method to clear the camp and ensure campers get to services, and if it works, the idea would be to expand it across the county, according to Dunn.

“I don’t want to be in a shelter because there are other people there. And they shut the light off. And you don’t know when you fall asleep, who will rummage through your things? Honestly. I mean, my stuff got stolen,” explained Deborah.

But living in her van so close to the sprawling and hidden camp presents its own issues.

“There are people that come knocking on your door and they want a blue and I don’t know what a blue is,” she recalled, referencing other campers trying to buy the counterfeit Percocet pills blamed for our increase in overdose deaths.

“And then there are people that knock on your window and they say I’m hungry. And then there are people that knock on the window, you know, two, three o’clock in the morning and they don’t, they’re cold. And so I give him a blanket because I have a free blanket, but I’m inside, so I give them the blanket because they don’t have shelter. I pray every night so I got that going for me,” added Deborah.

Dunn says she is a perfect example of someone falling through the cracks of the uncoordinated system.

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“You’ll hear again and again that the shelter options are not ideal, right? The shelter is very transitory. There’s some risk involved in the shelter. So it’s the permanent housing options that are really the more desired options. And that’s what we’re trying to get. But we all hear again and again. And there are outreach challenges and waiting lists, which is what we need to get past. And so you can’t use sweep without a solution as to where folks are going. And I think it’s not unreasonable for the public to start asking the question,” explained Dunn.

Dunn says part of the problem is Seattle and King County Public Health has barred workers from going into the camps due to COVID. His legislation asked the department to re-think that now that much has changed in the pandemic and most of us are fully vaccinated and boosted.

“The other layer, of course, is the outreach. There’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of the outreach that can be done, we talked about these navigation teams to come out and connect these folks and resources not working as well as it could. So that’s another big one, then just the availability of units, as you heard from Deborah down there that she’s on the waiting list for a unit, for permanent supportive housing,” explained Dunn.

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Longtime homeless camp along Green River becomes focus of proposed pilot program