We see them in most major cities: tents in our neighborhoods, tarps on our sidewalks, and encampments in our parks. We see garbage piling up. Feces in doorways. Neighbors and businesses are justifiably angry and saddened by the scene. We’re outraged by the public health problems and the knowledge that those aren’t just tents in our parks and sidewalks — there are people inside who are trying to survive.
Quarantining these past 16 months has been hard for everyone even when we had homes to go to. Imagine the difficulties of responding to COVID-19 from inside a tent. What could be colder, wetter, and more demoralizing?
We frequently hear complaints from residents and business owners who are understandably angry when tents and garbage stack up in their neighborhoods. With nowhere to go, a person who is homeless falls back on survival tactics. People living in tents attest that the tent is their last best choice. If better options were available, they’d take one.
Last year’s one-night homeless count in Seattle revealed nearly 12,000 people had no stable warm place to be nor a roof over their heads. Even though Seattle taxpayer have paid for and set up many 24/7 homeless shelters and assembled a system of overnight shelter beds, the system was maxed out even before the pandemic hit.
Since then, these same shelters have necessarily lowered their capacity to facilitate COVID social distancing. The intent is to keep their clients and staff safe and healthy, but the result is fewer places for people to get off the streets and parks. For many with no other resources, no family to take them in, their last best option is a tent outside.
Taxpayers in Seattle and other cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco pay millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations to offer services to people living on the streets. The costs are increasing — for example in Seattle, $80 million was directed to addressing homelessness in the 2020 budget and $167 million in 2021. Yet the dedicated outreach workers who are in the field despair because there are not enough beds or rooms to accommodate every person who is ready to move inside. Creating decent locations for people’s possessions, partners, and pets is a main challenge. Only with a coordinated regional approach funded in part by the federal government will we be able to meet the need. That need demands thousands more safe places for people to go 24/7, as the perils of the pandemic clearly showed.
In a recent sweep in Seattle’s Cal Anderson Park, while the city government touted that 48 beds were available for those in tents, according to front line service providers, only three beds were open for adult males that afternoon. Where are the tent dwellers supposed to go if they don’t have other resources?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on homeless encampments during the pandemic told cities not to remove people from their tents unless there was an appropriate shelter option. While some believe our homeless crisis is merely an enforcement issue, that’s just not true. The primary problem is that there are not enough 24/7 shelter options with the necessary physical and behavioral health services to help folks stabilize and ultimately get permanently housed. Chasing people in tents from neighborhood to neighborhood only worsens conditions for everyone. Many lose belongings during the sweeps making their survival options go from bad to worse.
We have successful local and national models. We know how to get people off the streets and on the road to health. Yes, permanent housing is the preferred end goal but each unit takes years to design, fund, and build. When provided the option of a room with a locking door inside a temporary hotel or a tiny home in a village — a private supportive place with four walls and a lock — time and again our homeless neighbors will choose this option rather than being directed to a mat in a shelter where they must leave the next morning.
National research from United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and stories from cities including Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Houston show us what works. Stabilizing peoples’ housing conditions improves the lives of everyone, including those of us blessed with businesses or homes of our own. What’s the solution in Seattle and cities including Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles where thousands of tents line sidewalks and parks?
First, we must address the immediate housing need to get people off the streets into a safe indoor place: cost-effective scale-up options such as tiny home villages, modular housing, and single hotel rooms — coupled with trained outreach workers across cities and regions can be done quickly. We need at least a thousand more units in Seattle and King County — quickly. This costs money and requires diligent follow up.
As an example, in the 2021 budget process, the Seattle City Council added $4.2 million to open at least three new tiny home villages, accommodating roughly 40 units per village, plus operating costs. Additionally, over $2 million to shelter those without homes in hotels was included. King County, which overlays and extends well beyond Seattle, has plans and programs to assist as well. Federal and private financial help is available too. Seattle has received $128 million through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, much of which will be spent on temporary and affordable housing.
Tiny homes strategies are a relatively inexpensive piece of the puzzle. Individual small homes help people stabilize so they can move on with their lives with dignity, and they help clean up streets and parks in their neighborhoods. Recently, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis proposed a creative plan to increase tiny home villages to 800 units by the end of this year. “It Takes a Village” plan includes leveraging business and philanthropic funding to multiply public resources so Seattle with volunteer help can quickly build and operate more tiny house villages. That’s a good start.
Additionally, one Seattle senior residence, Mirabella, has raised over $100,000 and offered to fund a tiny home village in their neighborhood, urging speed. They call themselves YIMBY’s: Yes In My Back Yard. They conditioned their $100,000 on whether Seattle would offer land and set this village up before the end of the year. These temporary housing options are just the first step in a pipeline to permanent housing and stability.
There is no time to waste on excuses or finger pointing. We know what we need to do to solve post-COVID homelessness. Using Seattle again as our example: 1) create a pipeline with 1000 more temporary 24/7 places as the entry point. 2) Tackle homelessness as we did Covid-19, and not accept “it’s too hard” for an answer. 3) Set aggressive goals and measurable expectations. We have to fund the housing with regional, federal, and philanthropic dollars and make offers of housing real. No more “sweeps” and no more sleeping outside on the street.
The problem before us is urgent. We know what we need to do, and we have the tools to do it. The citizenry are impatient. Collectively we can solve this.
This article first appeared in the “Social Impact Review” published by the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative.
Teresa Mosqueda is a member since 2017 of the Seattle City Council, serving in a citywide position. Sally Bagshaw, who formerly served on the city council, is currently a member of the Advanced Leadership Initiative Program at Harvard University.