Tents in Pioneer Square. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Conversations surrounding homelessness in Seattle have reached a fever pitch. Some have even gone so far as to claim that Seattle is dying. People experiencing homelessness are an increasingly visible part of day-to-day life in the City of Seattle and despite measures taken by the City, faith-based organizations and local nonprofits, the metrics indicate that it has not improved. The truth is that homelessness affects men, women and children, veterans, trauma survivors, and people of every age and ethnicity. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to address the complexity of homelessness.

In June of 2019, I published my master’s thesis Investigating an Asset Based Approach to Housing and Homelessness: A Phenomenological Case Study, which examines the structural response to homelessness, surveying how city, nonprofit, and faith-based organizations respond to this population. I argue that the community’s response to homelessness is a critical missing piece if meaningful change is to be made in rehousing the homeless population. This article will share the lessons from my thesis and explore the institutionalized responses to homelessness with recommendations for what I will describe as an asset-driven model for collectively addressing homelessness. This is both a social and economic argument that takes into account the collective efforts made by the city, faith-based organizations, and nonprofits, and asks the individual citizen to become involved as well.     

Putting Homelessness in Context 

During the production of my thesis I had the opportunity to interview three individuals who chronically experienced homeless in Seattle but have recently found permanent housing through Facing Homelessness’ Block Project. I’d like to share the story of one individual to illustrate the complexity of homelessness. To respect his privacy, I will refer to him as Zee. Zee is a 50-year-old African American man who was raised in an upper-middle-class family in Riverdale New York, just North of Harlem. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Fordham University with a focus on television and broadcast programming and moved to Seattle in 1991 to pursue a career in public broadcasting. This is not the story you imagine when you learn that Zee was also homeless in Seattle for eight years. His future was promising, but as he puts it, “I was living my dream when I met my nightmare.”

Zee’s partner, Brad, was self-destructive, taking him down a path that “led to basically my financial ruin, my mental breakdown and then my substance abuse.” Zee reinforced that his experiences while being homeless led him to substance abuse, not the other way around. He expressed that living homeless is a dehumanizing experience where “you can’t sit down anywhere. You can’t lay down anywhere. There’s nowhere to sleep. They say go to the shelters, you go to the shelters and you get robbed, you get assaulted. You catch parasites and diseases. They’re very unsafe and unclean.”

When Zee did find a clean shelter that provided a safe place to sleep, the waiting list often prevented him from being able to stay there. He mentioned that the Emanuel House Winter Shelter run by the Union Gospel Mission in Phinney Ridge was one such shelter. He preferred the Emanuel House Winter Shelter because it was one of the cleaner safer places to stay with a small and predictable population. This was a much different shelter experience than he had while seeking shelter in Downtown Seattle.  

When I asked Zee to share his story, he pointed out that “I think what a lot of people forget is that everyone wants to know how you became homeless. Homelessness is a very traumatic and victimizing situation. What we try to get people who have not been homeless to understand is that when you ask someone to share that story, basically you’re asking them to re-victimize themselves.”

The cycles of trauma are pervasive through his story and make it clear that the institutional responses to homelessness are inadequate and reinforced by social stigmatization. Zee would be considered someone who was chronically homeless, meaning that he has been continuously homeless for one year or more.

Homelessness in King County disproportionately affects African American men who make up 26% of the homeless population, but account for only 6% of the total population as classified by race. Additionally, history of domestic violence and abuse is more prevalent in the LGBTQ community (25% compared to 15%); yet another indicator illustrating Zee’s statistical risk of experiencing homelessness. Homelessness disproportionally affects queer people of color. Zee is a part of this ultra-minority and is statistically four times more likely to experience homelessness because he is a single, gay, African American man. I want to close his story by sharing his thoughts on how people perceive and discuss individuals experiencing homelessness, he emphasized that “no person is illegal, no person is an outsider, we’re all humans.”        

Homelessness in Seattle

Viewing homelessness through a wider aperture, 78% of the homeless population in King County consists of single individuals, a majority of which are white men over the age of 40. Nearly 30% of the current homeless population experiences chronic homelessness, which indicates that these individuals have lived outside continuously for a year or more. This kind of continuous instability is difficult to recover from and speaks to the complexity of homelessness in America. Families with children are also affected, making up 22% of the homeless population. These populations are especially vulnerable as many shelters only accept single individuals and much of the affordable housing is built in the form of studio and one-bedroom units. Homelessness is a circumstance created by social, political, and ecological forces all corresponding on a spatially fixed site. The compounding effects of racism, inadequate healthcare, and affordable housing are of course contributing externalities.

In 2018, a one night count found 12,112 people experiencing homelessness in King Country, a 4% increase from 2017. Nearly half of that population was living unsheltered, accounting for 6,320 individuals across Seattle/King County. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development considers an individual experiencing homelessness unsheltered if they are sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation such as vacant buildings, cars, public parks, and sidewalks.

All Home is an organization whose role is to lead the Seattle/King County Continuum of Care by joining care providers from local governments, nonprofits, religious institutions, and philanthropic organizations. According to their 2017 data, of the 4,567 households who exited homelessness to permanent housing, 866 were homeless again within a year. While some individuals may choose to leave a toxic or abusive situation, they are certainly not choosing to live unsheltered. A 20% rate of recidivism raises the question if homelessness is centrally a housing problem, then why is the provision of affordable housing not ending it? To the extent that long-term poverty, mental health concerns, and social stigma are central to the condition of homelessness, the provision of housing alone will not necessarily lead to long-term stability for these individuals. 

The City of Seattle budgeted $78 million dollars in direct response to the homelessness crisis in 2018. The majority of the budget, $30.9 million, was earmarked for shelter, hygiene, and homeless outreach. The city’s outreach strategy hinges heavily on encampment removal. The Encampment Abatement Program identifies unsanctioned homeless camps in the city of Seattle and after they have posted an official 72-hour notice to evacuate, works to place those living outside in sheltered living. From June 4tth to July 27th during the summer of 2018, 38 homeless camps were swept in a 56-day period. This is an aggressive strategy of forced dispersal that does little to provide stability or assistance to this population.

In 2017, The City of Seattle’s outreach team made 7,300 contacts with people experiencing homelessness and of those contacts, 1,117 people reportedly accepted some form of service. If only 15% of interactions are positive for the population being served, this indicates that there is a critical misunderstanding of that population and the services being provided are not catering to the most urgent needs of the community.  

The City of Seattle partners with the Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI) to manage and operate seven permitted villages geographically dispersed throughout Seattle. All of the villages are located on either City or LIHI owned property, and in aggregate provide shelter for more than 300 individuals each night. To ensure that community concerns are being adequately heard and mitigated, each camp is reviewed on a monthly basis by a Community Advisory Committee (CAC). Collectively, these villages are beneficiaries of the $30.9 million-dollar shelter, hygiene, and outreach budget allocated by the City of Seattle. The full list of sanctioned villages includes Georgetown Village, Interbay Safe Harbor Village, Lake Union Village, Licton Springs Village, Camp Second Chance – Myers Way, Northlake Village, Othello Village, True Hope Village, and Whittier Heights Village.  

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Mayor Jenny Durkan identifies Homelessness Prevention as Investment Area 1, allocating $22.4 million dollars, 28% of the budget, towards permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing, and diversion. While this has provided 1,000 low income households with rental assistance and utility discounts, diversion and rapid rehousing are one-time financial measures to move people experiencing homelessness directly into housing. Diversion and rapid rehousing are not truly preventative in nature but act as a reaction to the urgent need for housing.

The allocation of housing alone does not address the associated effects of homelessness such as poverty, loneliness, and social stigmatization and exclusion. Similarly, limited reach of those housing measures provides no long-term housing stability. This illuminates how politics and planning can blend to produce undesirable and ineffective outcomes. Planners can identify where the housing is placed, policymakers can dictate how it is funded, but neither can address the social stigma experienced by someone living outside.  

The City of Seattle budgets an additional $12.4 million dollars on prevention and access to services. These services come in the form of Urban Rest Stops and Day and Hygiene Centers which provide basic amenities like shower, restroom and laundry services. The services provided by the day centers come at no cost to the patrons and play a key role in creating avenues for people experiencing homelessness to practice self-care. Additionally, $4.4 million dollars were spent in 2018 cleaning garbage and waste produced by homeless camps. In total, the City of Seattle collected over 3.5 million pounds of garbage from unmanaged encampments, trash in the right of way, and the newly piloted encampment litter bag program run by Seattle Public Utilities. Collecting and disposing of this amount of waste comes at a significant financial cost to the City, and signals that more formalized collection centers could be implemented to mitigate the uncontrolled nature of the garbage.

Where planning can be effective in legislating and enacting change is through long-term strategies like inclusionary zoning, urban land trusts, rent control legislation, and reliable housing subsidies. The irony in this is that the need for housing and stability is urgent, requiring a more expeditious response than formal planning interventions can summon. Communities experiencing homelessness do not have 10 to 20 years to wait for inclusionary zoning policies to be executed via new market-rate housing developments.

Research suggests that “to break the cycle of homelessness, housing policy should build upon a framework which has individual’s wellbeing as the primary objective.” While the dwelling is a crucial, spatially fixed part of the solution, stability comes from the ability to find a sense of belonging within a community, to be autonomous, and to be free. The homeless community is not given the agency to shed the label of “homeless” and assimilate into more permanent, mixed-income housing. Often, as previously described, the homeless are continuously displaced and aided by stop-gap measures that do little to build agency or social capital. 

The Nonprofit Response

The nonprofit response to homelessness is much more targeted and specific than what the city is able to offer. Because of the wide array of populations affected by homelessness, the needs of every individual cannot be met by City-funded housing subsidies and shelter provision. Homelessness affects men, women and children, veterans, trauma survivors, and people of every age and ethnicity. The Emerald City Resource Guide, produced by the Seattle based non-profit Real Change, identifies over 500 service providers for people experiencing homelessness and poverty. The identified resources range from identification services, clothing assistance, and health services, to HIV/AIDS services, immigrant and refugee services, and LGBTQ services. This is a nuanced condition which requires precise care for each population affected; which is where nonprofits have been able to provide aid. These organizations are able to create social connections and support that are essential to augment and promote non-housing outcomes for the homeless population. 

The common connection between non-profits that provide aid to people experiencing homelessness is that they act as the connective tissue between the city and the individual. They function as community anchors connecting individuals to legal, educational, health, prevention, and advocacy services making wrap around care more accessible. Their power is in their nimble ability to work with specific populations in the homeless community and provide targeted aid that they couldn’t access otherwise. Unfortunately, they are restricted by their ability to scale and have limited touch points for the homeless community to engage with them and receive aid. Nonprofits engage with the homeless community in innovative ways by leveraging existing state institutions to deploy their services without exchanging financial resources.     

The Faith-Based Response 

Faith-based organizations (FBOs) are powerful and effective non-governmental actors aiding those experiencing temporary and chronic homelessness by providing emergency shelter services and permanent housing solutions. FBOs are defined as organizations where a specific faith serves as the driving mission to serve individuals experiencing homelessness. Specifically, this definition includes organizations that have an activity-based approach to service which requires participants to engage in religious activities, and organizations that don’t explicitly incorporate religious programming but whose employees are primarily motivated by their faith to serve others. Faith-based organizations serve a critical role in providing non-publicly funded shelter and social services that would otherwise incur great costs to local governments and citizens alike. 

A report published in 2017 by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion (BISR), Assessing the Faith Based Approach to Homelessness in America, shows that 63% of the emergency shelter beds available in the City of Seattle are provided by FBOs. Looking deeper into the numbers, the top three faith-based organizations that provide emergency shelter services are Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (22%), Catholic Community Services (18%), and the Salvation Army (16%). Together, these three organizations make 1,313 emergency shelter beds available every night.

The Housing First model, which some FBOs prescribe to, argues that by housing an individual and supporting them with lesser impact services saves the cost of emergency hospital service, drug and alcohol clinical treatment, mental health emergency services, and jail stays. The BISR report found that housing services and job training programs offered in the cities they studied generated an estimated $119 million in taxpayer savings during the three years following program exit. Faith-based organizations provide an enormous social good to the city, but like non-profit organizations, are limited in their capacity to provide aid.      

Where Do We Go from Here? 

It is clear that despite a nearly $100 million-dollar investment by the City of Seattle, and tireless work done by non-profits and faith-based organizations, that the number of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle will continue to increase. Private citizens collectively hold the answer through what I will describe as an asset-based response to homelessness. Historically, asset-based community planning organizes the resources of an existing group to benefit the community as a whole. Asset-based approaches leverage a communities existing capacity to affect change, which in this case are in the form of volunteer labor, donated materials, property, and funding.

We have to learn about each other, and we have to do that through proximity. We collectively have the power to make a difference. While the solution requires all of us doing our part, giving back doesn’t have to look the same for everyone. Here are some recommendations for how to make an impact today: 

  • Open your backyard to a neighbor experiencing homelessness.
    • For more on this read about the Block Project and their approach to ending homelessness.
  • Volunteer at a non-profit or faith-based organization focused on providing services to those experiencing homelessness.
    • Start by learning about the work conducted by Facing Homelessness, Youth Care, Mary’s Place, and Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.
  • You can simply start by just saying hello next time you see someone in need. 

The institutional responses to homelessness indicate that despite the steps taken to provide housing and support to those experiencing homelessness, more people are suffering now than ever before. The homeless population in Seattle/King County has increased every year for the last decade. This is not a homelessness crisis, this is a community crisis. We are all part of this problem which requires all of us to be part of the solution. Homelessness can seem like a permanent state of being, a label that distinguishes “us” from “them” and suspends members of our community in a cycle of abuse and trauma.

By humanizing this monolithic crisis, individuals are able to respond on a personal level. I encourage you to meet your neighbors living outside, volunteer your time serving meals at a shelter or at the very least just say hello. By coming closer, we begin to build community with our neighbors living outside. In doing so, homelessness can be disassembled, brick by brick by an asset-driven approach to community building.

Article Author
Hayden Campbell (Guest Contributor)

Hayden Campbell is an urban designer and PNW native invested in equitable community design centered around issues of access and social justice. These interests are principally driven by the historical inequities perpetrated by planning in the American urban context.