Danny Westneat’s Seattle Times column last Sunday titled, ‘It’s a feud’: Brand new homeless shelter sits empty as leaders squabble, set my email on fire. Everyone who wrote wants the Southeast Seattle tiny homes village (all built and fitted out but nobody living there) opened. Like me, they are sick of the arguments and weary of the polarization.
Service providers, business leaders, housing developers, mental/behavioral health advocates — all wrote to tell me they want humane and cost-effective solutions. No matter where a person falls on the political spectrum, I heard a loud and clear demand for “housing first.” John Pehrson and his sidekicks at Mirabella were begging to be part of a dignity-centered approach.
But after a year and a half of being ignored, Pehrson is refunding over $140,000 in contributions and moving on. Too bad for his generous donors who wanted to adopt the residents of the village that they would have built. Too bad for the unfortunate souls who will continue to sleep on the street for God knows how much longer until someone in government can summon the energy and the will to overcome the inertia of inaction.
Distilling these dozens of conversations, here’s my summary of the general advice from the community to Marc Dones and his new team at the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA), who have held up the funding for these tiny home villages:
First, those of us who developed and passed the legislation creating the KCRHA want your organization to function like Air Traffic Control. We want your team to meet with every service provider and learn what they do best. Communicate clearly with us; update your website; tell people what you are doing; develop a systems map. Show where there are duplications in our system and how to bridge the service gaps. Set timelines. Show us what you’re measuring. And show us progress.
Second, Seattle is not New York, nor are we Los Angeles. Everyone wants their ideas to be considered. We won’t agree on everything, but listening to each other demonstrates respect and we all might learn something. As one service provider told me, “I’ve made some mistakes. I’ve been shunned and criticized on social media, although I’ve found homes for over 100 people within one year.” Most providers do solid work and should be included rather than ostracized.
Third, stop pitting the long-term need for permanent supportive apartments against the immediate need for tiny homes, motel spaces, and other temporary dwellings that get people off the street right now. We need it all.
In an interview Marc Dones conducted about nine months ago with Publicola’s Erica C Barnett, he said, “We need to have something that is permanent, that is housing, and that allows people to have stability and to have lives while whatever the thing that they are waiting for is coming on line. We really need to have something that is in the middle.”
Exactly. That was my point, too, in my recent Post Alley article called All of the Above: Tiny Houses and More. We need housing desperately, but we can’t wait for thousands of expensive, permanent units to be built. We need something better than a tent right now.
Keep in mind that Dones’ interview was last summer.
And if Dones says he’s in favor of tiny homes, why did Anne Martens, the RHA’s senior director of external affairs and communications, write to Danny Westneat and call the tiny home villages “shantytowns”?
Oxford Dictionary defines a shantytown as “a deprived area on the outskirts of a town consisting of large numbers of crude dwellings.” The tiny home villages volunteers are building and locating in Seattle and King County are anything but shantytowns. They are incorporated into neighborhoods and often sponsored in church parking lots. They are not “crude dwellings.”
As Barb Oliver of Sound Foundations NW demonstrates, the tiny homes built inside the South Seattle warehouse by volunteers (I’m one of them) offer significantly more amenities and safety than living in a tent. The homes are constructed solidly, insulated, lighted, heated, have locking doors, a raised bed with a mattress and linens to sleep on, and shelves to put belongings on. In a managed encampment, these homes provide stability and give their residents a base on which to build a future.
Managed tiny home villages are one important piece of the puzzle, as are other options preferred by Marc Dones, such as adult family homes, medical respite at or near our hospitals, and recovery housing. But all those options take time to materialize. We need many different types of housing to meet individual needs.
The City of Seattle and King County have given KCRHA money to do this work. Use some of that money to fund the operations for the next seven months for the 40-unit Rainier Valley Seattle Tiny Homes Village and then build and fund many more units of various kinds. Mayor Harrell promised to produce 1,000 units of emergency, supportive shelter in the first six months of his administration, with another 1,000 by the end of year one. They are way behind.
KCRHA believes its secret sauce is to hire peer navigators with “lived experience.” KCRHA should also look to other organizations like REACH, DESC, JustCare, YouthCare, and Union Gospel Mission that already have experienced peer navigators on staff and have been doing this work for years. Include these organizations as advisors because leaving them out or talking about their workers with disrespect increases resentment and slows progress. Right or wrong, resentment is rampant right now.
In Seattle, the saying goes, “everything is permitted, but nothing is forgiven.” One outreach worker added a new motto: “Seattle is full of bullies.” She wasn’t talking about people experiencing homelessness.