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March 17, 2016

Outside City Hall: Homelessness - City leaders ignore root cause

Back in 1980, just three years after the Seattle Displacement Coalition was formed, there was no such thing as “homelessness”.

At that time, Seattle’s downtown had about 10,000 low-cost housing units—nearly all unsubsidized—inhabited by a diverse multi-racial mix of low income men, and some women, many on Social Security or getting disability payments.

Those wanting work could walk a few blocks to the day labor office and likely pick up part-time work on the docks or waterfront warehouses. If you were retired, there were bars, pool halls, hotel lobbies, and long-time restaurants like the Turf, where you could just hang out, see friends and get a cheap, filling meal.

Yes, there were an estimated 300 or so “skid road” denizens, mostly men, some with alcohol and addiction issues, who called the streets of downtown and Pioneer Square home. The missions helped these people and there was little need for subsidized housing or a multi-million dollar social service delivery system. Folks had built-in support systems intrinsic to the community.

But something dramatically changed. In Seattle as in cities across the country, in a little over half a decade, office and commercial development exploded. Spurred in part by lucrative tax breaks and supply side monetary policies during the Reagan administration, capitalists rediscovered the downtown core of major cities, including Seattle. The economy moved from blue collar to white. Real wages for many fell, the day labor offices closed, dock and warehouse jobs evaporated.

Local politicians actively abetted the trend, shoveling our tax dollars downtown and upzoning for another 20 million square feet of office space. From 1980 to 1985 over 4000 units were demolished or abandoned awaiting redevelopment. The hotels, the pool halls, the working class bars and restaurants were nearly all wiped out as well. Nationally, a million and a half downtown low-income units were lost during this period.

Federal budget cuts during the Reagan years compounded the problem. It was a perfect storm and the coincidence of these forces gave rise to homelessness as we know it today.

By the late 80’s, it was estimated there were a half million people homeless nationally and about 3000-4000 locally. The area’s first “one night count” showed the problem had spread to affect families, women with kids, children, youth, seniors, not just a few skid roaders.

Some did point a finger at the rise in addiction and lack of mental health beds due to federal budget cuts, as the cause. These factors certainly contributed. But displacement and gentrification, along with callous disregard for their impacts in the inner city by locally elected officials, were the root causes of homelessness back then, as they are now in 2016.

By the end of the 90’s the city had spent $150 million from two housing levies to stabilize low-income downtown housing at about 6000 units, where it remains today, nearly all subsidized. And we now have an elaborate multi-million dollar social service network filling the gap left by the irrevocable loss of more organic support systems prior to the 80’s.

Benevolent city leaders didn’t bring about this stabilization. Low-income people, tenants, the homeless and their advocates marched, demonstrated and took over abandoned habitable buildings demanding the city commit funds to acquire and reopen them.

Jumping to today, the Ten-year Plan to End Homelessness is now in its eleventh year. Made up of United Way, corporate, county and city electeds (and only a few advocates), the effort did add 6300 units (we’re not knocking that) by cobbling together additional public and private contributions. More people and families were served. Yet we now have 12,000-15,000 homeless countywide, most in Seattle.

In 2005, the Seattle Displacement Coalition said that unless our leaders put a stop to the continued accelerated loss of our existing stock of low-income units due to market forces, homelessness only would rise. For every one unit the Ten Year Plan produced, we’d lose 3-4 times that amount to demolition, condominium conversion, speculation and increased rent.

Since then, easily 20,000 low cost units were lost to redevelopment in Seattle alone. But instead of addressing displacement head-on, the only change in the Ten Year Plan’s direction we’ve seen, has been rebranding itself “All Home”.

Once again there is high profile coverage of the rise in homelessness, this time highlighted by the tragic shootings in the Jungle, the push for more tent cities, and resident fears—sadly conflating homelessness with crime and scapegoating the homeless themselves.

Our Mayor, other political leaders and the press are pointing fingers, blaming the feds for a lack of funding, not enough services, shelter beds or mental health facilities: all true. But it’s shocking that almost nothing has been said linking homelessness to unprecedented levels of growth and the staggering loss of existing low-cost units we’re now seeing in Seattle.

The Mayor seems to care about solving homelessness. But he’s also hell-bent on upzoning for more growth while offering absolutely nothing to combat even greater levels of displacement that will follow. Unless this changes, brace yourself. We could double spending on homelessness, but expect even more people pushed onto our streets.

  • Written by: Carolee Colter and John V. Fox
  • Reprinted from March 2016 issue of City Living and other Pacific Publishing newspapers.
  • City Living News copy can be found here
  • Seattle Displacement Coalition’s website can be found here