Our Obligation to Improve Our Response on Homelessness
As I meet with and listen to people across my district and throughout the city, the homelessness crisis is at the forefront of our conversations and concerns. Despite the best intentions of many, and many millions of dollars invested, it seems we are in a state of paralysis when it comes to this crisis. As a physician who has worked with vulnerable populations for much of my career, I know there is no simple diagnostic or policy solution to this extremely complex problem.
Homelessness is the result of a multitude of factors. Abuse, significant adverse experiences, trauma either in childhood or adulthood, inadequate treatment of mental health problems, lack of strong family or support systems, addiction, job loss, unaffordable housing, and poverty are among the most common and interrelated contributors to homelessness. Because this is a complex crisis, it requires intentional interventions, at multiple levels, over time, for us to make headway. However, unsheltered individuals ‘left alone’ on the streets, in their vehicles, or in encampments is not acceptable. It is our moral obligation to do more.
The Seattle City Council must take a bold leadership role to address the worsening homelessness crisis. Here are the foundations of my vision for changing our approach and prioritizing our response:
- We need to make more stable, permanent, and supportive housing available for the chronically homeless on our streets, many with mental health or addiction challenges. Research and our direct experience show that the most cost effective and sensible approach is to provide permanent supportive housing, like that provided by Plymouth Housing and DESC.
- To build more supportive housing, let’s get creative to lower costs. For example, the city government should consider waiving building permit fees, expediting siting decisions, and persuading the state legislature to waive the sales tax on new construction for facilities serving the chronically homeless. These simple steps could erase millions of dollars in costs and get this specialty housing built faster
- We need to better coordinate and organize our efforts around homelessness. There are currently multiple city agencies, County programs, and contracted community organizations, working on this crisis. Yet our own City Auditor indicates there are gaps, opportunities, and that we should be studying and learning from practices in other cities and jurisdictions. The Mayor and County Executive have proposed reengineering our overall response to homelessness to introduce more efficiencies and effectiveness and these efforts should be quickly implemented.
- Finally, we must more directly engage with individuals, including the unsheltered, who participate in criminal behaviors damaging to themselves and our community. Let’s be very clear, criminal behavior that threatens or harms others is not acceptable. No one in our city should have to live with the fear that they will be assaulted, or that their home will be broken into, or their car vandalized or stolen. Our attention must be focused on violent and repeat offenders. King County has led reforms in prosecution and sentencing that avoids traditional and ineffective jail time for mentally ill or addicted offenders. Yet the small number of violent and repeat offenders creating the majority of public safety threats are too often returned to the street without treatment, only to commit additional crimes. Our justice system needs to fairly and compassionately address these individuals, including intense mental health and addiction treatment when needed, while also protecting our neighborhoods from continuing criminal behavior.
Some people have asked me about the program done by KOMO recently. Friends, Seattle is not dying. Our city has a crisis that is leading to higher rates of homelessness, which is driven by many factors. This is visible to us every day. But this community can, and must, modify and improve our collective efforts, so we will all begin to see, realize, and feel progress being made. (Seattle is splitting, not dying – Real Change News)
And one of the worst things we can do is to stoke fear, and incorrectly and inaccurately portray one of our neighbors, without his consent, as homeless and ‘in distress, suffering’ when indeed he may be one of the examples of a success story in getting stable, permanent housing for the unsheltered in Seattle. (Man used as proof that ‘Seattle Is Dying’ tells his story – Crosscut)
Protecting human rights, while protecting the public health and the safety of our entire community, can be achieved in Seattle. We cannot have an ‘us vs them’ mentality, and it’s not just ‘up to the city’ to address the underlying causes of homelessness. It will take honest dialogue, financial investments, utilizing actual data, and real partnerships to make improvement. There are many things we are currently doing well to address this issue, and these need continued support, and potential expansion. And we must remember, this is a community-wide problem, and we will need to employ community-wide solutions.
Every day we look for easy answers, or point fingers and fail to collaborate, we are neglecting the needs of those who need help most—and the people of our region who deserve leadership on this crisis. I have lived my life believing in the goodness of the human spirit, and in human potential. I know that the innovative, compassionate, progressive city where I have lived and worked my entire life can make significant improvements in addressing homelessness, and can continue to make us all proud of our city.