On Nov. 2, 2015, King County Executive Dow Constantine and then-Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared homelessness a state of emergency in Seattle and King County.
Since then, chronic homelessness in the region has worsened — despite good intentions, serial initiatives and hundreds of millions spent on shelter, services and crisis response.
Challenge Seattle, an alliance of CEOs from 21 of the region’s largest employers, has drafted a blueprint that addresses this perpetual emergency. The group’s proposal complements other initiatives, including the newly formed city-county Regional Homelessness Authority and the proposed Compassion Seattle ballot initiative. Civic leaders and candidates for city and county offices must take note.
Before the pandemic, there were more people experiencing homelessness in King County than in any other U.S. metro area outside New York City and Los Angeles, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report. An estimated 815 chronically homeless people lived in King County when Murray signed the 2015 emergency declaration. By 2020, that number had more than quadrupled, reaching an astonishing 3,355.
Seattle and King County have expended significant resources to expand shelter options during the pandemic, but more of the same is not a satisfactory strategy.
Enter Challenge Seattle. Its report, “Chronic Homelessness: A Crossroad,” recommends aligning fragmented services into a unified “homelessness ecosystem” that makes every interaction with hospitals, police, treatment centers and shelter an opportunity to exit from chronic homelessness. It recommends adopting successful strategies, such as Bakersfield, Calif.’s use of centralized case management and real-time data to connect individuals with personalized services, and turning underused hotels and apartment buildings into temporary emergency housing.
California’s Project Homekey did just that, with an $846 million investment that created 6,000 new units of affordable housing and shelter in six months. In April, mayors of several Washington cities asked state lawmakers to earmark federal funding to create a similar program.
King County Executive Constantine, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle City Council members were joined by mayors of Bellingham, Bremerton, Everett, Kirkland, Olympia, Spokane, Tacoma, Tumwater and Vancouver in urging state leaders to allocate a portion of the $4.2 billion in flexible American Rescue Plan dollars for cities, counties and housing authorities to buy properties for shelter or affordable housing. Thirty business leaders endorsed the idea in an April 8 letter. They estimated that a $400 million investment, augmented with local dollars, could shelter more than 2,600 people. But state lawmakers ignored the request. If they convene in a special session, they should not squander a second chance to fund the request.
The region is, indeed, at a crossroads: The longer this perpetual emergency drags on, the more benumbed residents become to the problem and the greater the human suffering playing out on our region’s sidewalks, parks and greenbelts. We cannot accept a lack of progress.