Lessons learned to fight the Seattle homeless crisis

Feb 4, 2017, 6:37 AM | Updated: Apr 5, 2017, 8:39 pm

seattle homeless, children, homeless children, homeless youth...

Child Protective Services was called after three homeless children were found alone in a tent under the West Seattle Bridge. (KIRO 7)

(KIRO 7)

Barb Poppe learned a lesson early in her career — in 1983 — while tackling homeless issues of the time. It’s a lesson she carries forward to fight Seattle’s modern homeless crisis.

Poppe came across a baby, in Ohio, whose health was poor. The main reason — the baby was living in a car with its parents.

Related: Seattle homeless czar on what to do next

“Since 1983, we have strong medical evidence that there is no level of homelessness that is not harmful to children,” Poppe told a downtown Seattle crowd this week. “In particular, we know that homelessness to pregnant women and to infants increases, substantially, the risk that the infant will die before the age of 1.”

That was just the start of a story she told at an event hosted by the Downtown Seattle Association, Seattle Metro Chamber, Visit Seattle and Alliance for Pioneer Square. The panel was moderated by KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. The rest of the tale draws from last summer when she was tasked with finding out why Seattle was experiencing a homelessness crisis despite throwing $56 million a year at the issue.

“There does seem to, weirdly, be this acceptance that it’s actually OK for people to be on the streets (in Seattle),” she said.

Seattle homeless approach

When Poppe was hired to dive into Seattle homeless policies, services and infrastructure, one of the first things she came across was an article in The Seattle Times.

“… and there’s a picture of a family living in a station wagon – two parents and they have two infants,” Poppe said. “The caption said they weren’t prioritized for shelter, and that’s why they were outside.”

“I was like, ‘How in the world do you live in a place that covers this story and it’s OK, not only one infant in a car but infants in a car?'” she said.

“In almost every community in the United States it’s completely unheard of and unacceptable that a child is living outside,” Poppe said, noting that many communities have youth and young adults living on the street. But there are plans in place.

“There is an open offer to emergency shelter, there is the ability to bring them inside, whether that is through an emergency shelter or a motel voucher,” she said.

So Poppe asked around. She contacted the city and All Home, the local organization that serves as a hub for government agencies and non-profits.

“I was taken around to sanctioned encampments and I was proudly shown that there was a hut where a newborn infant was living with their mother,” Poppe said. “The non-profit that showed me this was very proud of this. They said, ‘It is better that they are in this hut / tiny home with no running water, heat or electricity than if they were in a tent.”

“I just don’t understand how that is the acceptable level in this community and there’s not tremendous moral outrage and rapid movement to change that,” she said.

As a national expert on homelessness, Poppe explained that most communities around the US don’t have the money and resources that Seattle does.

“You are a business community that makes my life better in Columbus every day,” she said of Seattle. “You solve problems I didn’t know I had, whether it’s the coffee that I need to drink, or if it’s a Sunday afternoon and I don’t want to go to the grocery store and in within two hours Amazon delivers groceries to my doorstep.”

Why wasn’t that innovation being used to solve the Seattle homeless crisis?

“You are the most innovative business community,” she said. “That’s where I enter into this … I don’t understand because you are smart and caring people, you know how to get stuff done. I don’t know why you don’t get it done.”

Business on board

One aspect of the Seattle homeless crisis is well-known — there is a housing crisis that goes along with it. Rents are high and unreachable for many people and families.

“You go back to the affordable housing, rental crisis — in your community that becomes an excuse to not get things done,” Poppe said. “In other communities, it becomes, ‘this is the reality we are in. And how are we going to overcome that reality?’”

Other communities have remedied the issue through a few methods Seattle hasn’t been doing. They are among recommendations Poppe gave the city. Seattle is now in the process of implementing those recommendations — called the Pathway Home plan.

First of all, the non-profits the city relied upon to address homelessness were not being held accountable for results. Neither was the city itself. That will change. Services that do not perform well will essentially be cut off, according to Poppe and George Scarola, Seattle’s homeless czar.

“You’ve let a thousand flowers bloom and there’s not an expectation that programs do anything different than what they were funded in 1985 to do …” Poppe said. “Whenever there is a new best practice, you add that best practice on top of what is already a shaky foundation.”

At the same time, Poppe said, Seattle needs to get businesses on board — especially when it comes to the housing issue.

“Business partnerships are needed in this space, and communities that have done that often are relying on partnerships with the real estate industry and other businesses to make it happen,” Poppe said. “I would say the business community has to be a part of helping to solve (the rental crisis). Because that is not within the grasp of government to solve on its own.”

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Lessons learned to fight the Seattle homeless crisis