A Q&A with George Scarola, the city’s new director of homelessness.
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Last week, Mayor Ed Murray announced he was appointing George Scarola, a former League of Education Voters lobbyist and aide de camp to State House Majority Leader Frank Chopp (D-43), to a new cabinet-level position overseeing city departments’ work on homelessness.
Scarola is a known quantity to Murray, who worked with him in his previous job as a senator and, before that, as a state representative, which is one reason, both Murray and Scarola say, that the mayor offered him the position. But he’s less familiar to a more recent generation of homelessness advocates and policymakers. The last time Scarola found himself in the trenches on homelessness was back in the late ’90s when, as head of the Sand Point Community Housing Association, he led efforts to build new housing for people experiencing homelessness on decommissioned Navy land in Magnuson Park.
After his time in Chopp’s office, and a stint as head of the state House Democratic Campaign Committee, Scarola worked on Seattle housing levy and education levy campaigns after leaving. Most recently, he was the legislative director for the League of Education Voters, where, several acquaintances say, he brought a rare combination of skilled political player and hardcore public policy wonk. “He’s very good at understanding politics and very sharp when it comes to policy,” Seattle political consultant John Wyble says. Moreover, “George is great at working with some tough personalities. I’ve seen him do it before and think he’ll do it again with Ed.”
Murray, of course, disputes the “narrative” that he’s rough around the edges, telling me he picked Scarola based on his ability to bring people together, including the lasting coalition he helped build that has passed education levies for nearly two decades.
“George is one of the most value-based, understated individuals I can think of, and in a situation where there’s a lot of anger, tension, and egos, we really need someone who can focus on getting us to yes on all the issues we face,” Murray says. The $50 million the city has pledged to spend this year on homelessness, Murray says, is “more than most departments’ budgets, but there is no single director of this effort. It’s scattered throughout the departments. And so, basically, a lot of it has been in my office, and we can’t do that kind of work. Operationally, it needs to be in an office or department of its own.”
Scarola himself has been on the job less than a week, and still seems to be getting his head around the enormity of the job he’s been tasked with. To be successful, he’ll need to be a combination diplomat-enforcer, as well as a policy wonk who can back up the mayor’s policies with evidence and data. I talked with Scarola recently about his plans for the office, his history with the mayor, and why anyone would step out of semi-retirement to take on the most contentious and challenging issue of the decade.
The C Is for Crank (ECB): The mayor’s announcement said that you’ll be guiding the city’s efforts on homelessness across many different departments. Can you explain what that means?
George Scarola (GS): At the moment, I’m a department of one. The city has about 20-plus departments that touch or deal in big ways with the problem of homelessness—everything from the human services department, sanitation, the police, libraries, the people who do cleanups at encampments, who provide the Port-a-Potties—and because the problem stretches across agencies, it’s easy for the city to look schizophrenic.
The mayor is looking at a model in Boston, where he has one person who can say what’s happening across the board and look at what’s happening across the city, and someone he can hold accountable. I’m a cabinet-level position so that I can call on any department to carry out or clarify what the city’s policy is and ask for resources, ask for help, provide direction, and coordinate the city’s message.
“[Murray] needs a combination of people who have tact and are not going to take no for an answer. … It helps to have some diplomatic skills and still get results.”
ECB: Murray told me that he asked you about taking this position several months ago and you turned him down. Why did you reconsider?
GS: That was in January or December, and I had made a commitment to go back [to China, [where Scarola moved after leaving his position as policy director at the League of Education Voters] and teach a graduate school course at the same university that it’d been at. It was a cool opportunity, I was teaching public policy at a great university in China, and I was like, “I just can’t tell them no.” And I thought, “There are people who know this issue better.” I talked to my friends in the housing world and homelessness world who I thought should be doing this. Now that I see better what the job is, I get better why the mayor asked me to do this.[Murray] needs a combination of people who have tact and are not going to take no for an answer. Instead of saying, “We’ll get there, but it’ll take us a year,” he would like to have somebody who will just get these things that we know would work better done in a shorter time frame, and just press everybody harder. He somebody that he knows who can do that, and that’s what I do. I try to make things happen without alienating or turning it into an ever more tenuous situation. If you’re talking to the police chief, if you’re talking to a community group, it helps to have some diplomatic skills and still get results.
ECB: Since you’ve worked with both Mayor Murray and Frank Chopp, I have to ask: Is part of your job being a buffer between a sometimes-hotheaded mayor and the departments and community groups?
GS: I don’t see myself as a buffer. Ed wants to get something done and he is determined to make a difference. He’s elevated the issue. He’s communicated that. Now the trick is spelling that out with the city departments and to some extent with people outside of the city. He’s the elected. I only have one job, which is to move a set of policies through across a number of agencies, so I think what he wants is tenacity.
How can you provide any services to anybody if they have no shelter? Once you’ve got housing, you can access conventional services, but without it, I don’t know how you even get started.
ECB: Do you have a theory about the root causes of homelessness? Do you attribute it mostly to a lack of affordable housing, mental illness, addiction, or something else?
GS: It’s all of the above. There’s a statistic I’ve seen where a $100 increase in rent will produce  percent more homelessness. That’s one factor. We have an opioid epidemic. We have an economy that forces people into structural unemployment, where there’s just no jobs in rural Washington and small towns in Washington, and people at the edge give up looking for jobs because they can’t find them. You have the federal government getting out of the housing business in the last 30 years in a big way. State funding for mental health has declined. It’s like a perfect storm. Probably there were many people in the past with mental health and drug problems who could afford to get by with cheaper housing. So you raise the housing costs and those people can’t afford to get by anymore. And then add one more: Because the people who come to Seattle are not just people coming to work for Amazon and Microsoft but people who have heard there are more jobs in Seattle and in the service sector, sometimes those jobs aren’t very stable.
ECB: But of all those factors, isn’t the lack of affordable housing the main issue?
GS: Clearly, that is the biggest problem. There can’t be any question that if there’s not much affordable housing, that the people who have the lowest-paid jobs or are in the most unstable situations are going to be the most affected by those increases in rents.
ECB: Given that, what do you think of the “housing first” model, which says that we need to get people into housing before we deal with whatever other problems they might have?
The mayor is very clear: I don’t want to see people on mats on the floor. I want them to have decent shelter.
GS: I’m totally there. How can you provide any services to anybody if they have no shelter? Once you’ve got housing, you can access conventional services, but without it, I don’t know how you even get started.
ECB: The mayor has appointed a task force to look at how to improve what homelessness advocates are calling sweeps, and what the mayor’s office is calling “cleanups.” When you hear “cleanup,” what exactly do you see the city “cleaning up”? Garbage, people’s possessions, the people themselves?
GS: I think the idea of a sweep is that you move people out without any real place to go, and to some extent the city has chased people from one place without another place to go. The city’s saying, that doesn’t work for anybody. and the cleanup protocols will address that problem. But if we waited until we had realistic shelter available where you could bring pets, partners, and possessions, we’re not going to do much, if any, cleanups waiting for that day.
There’s a task force, and its job is to come up with better protocols. The mayor asked for that task force. I would be the first to say we’re not satisfied with the way the cleanups have been carried out. So he asked the task force to look at the protocols: Why can’t we do this better, how can we do this better? And so I think that’s going to be a tall order, but that’s high on my list, is to do everything I can to help that task force reach some recommendations for the city about how to do the cleanups better.
I worked very closely with a young man who was a classic foster child. He became a young adult and I tried to find him housing. This was years ago and it was like an education.
ECB: Does it undermine the task force’s work to have the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services submitting legislation that would halt the sweeps?
GS: First of all, that’s what the task force is supposed to be doing. Probably that proposal, either in whole or in pieces, will be part of the task force deliberations. If that piece of legislation were acceptable, I suppose we could call off the task force, but the mayor believes that when you have piles of garbage, when you have generally unhealthy situations, when you have encampments in places that either endanger the people getting to them because they’re so close to the roadway or prevent, in the case of the Duwamish, the state from doing some inspection work, that it’s the responsibility of the city to deal with those problems.
I think we’re on a fast track here, and I think that although the task force only has a month and the issues are complex, I don’t think if you took six months you would have a better product. We know what the issues are.
ECB: Do you think the proposed Navigation Center will be a model for what the city will provide to people who don’t or can’t go to conventional shelters?
GS: It is a model, and it is the kind of program that lots of people think is the right alternative to offer. In the legislation the ACLU is proposing, it reads like the Navigation Center: 24/7 [shelter], the ability to store your possessions, a safe, low-barrier place [where] you’re not excluded because you have an addiction problem. I think the Navigation Center is the example that that legislation points to, and it’s been working in other cities, so that’s a very high priority for us.
ECB: A lot of people have told me a policy wonk, but your area of expertise to this point has been education. Would you say that you’re someone who picks up new things, like the politics and policy around homelessness in Seattle, quickly?
GS: I am somebody who, when I know it, I really understand it. It’s a little bit more gut for me. If you’re saying, will I remember all the statistics? No.
The reason I said no in January was, I couldn’t stand the idea of waking up in the morning, in the winter, when several thousand people were living in cars and in tents. It was more than I could deal with. I’ve had six months to get over that, and so I go, “okay, someone’s going to do this job.” And I’ve got a few months before winter hits. It’ll be very personal. I will know the subject at a gut level. It’s not something you can gloss over. It’s a big problem. It’s going to take time go get all these pieces working to move in a direction that’s going to move more people out of the outdoors, out of mats on the floor. The mayor is very clear: I don’t want to see people on mats on the floor. I want them to have decent shelter.
ECB: Is homelessness an issue that has impacted a family member or someone else you know personally?
GS: How could it not? I worked very closely with a young man who was a classic foster child. He became a young adult and I tried to find him housing. This was years ago and it was like an education. Every place he walked in, everyone knew him. And what happens in the foster care system is people learn how to get along and how to fit in in the 15th, 16th, 17th family. But you never learn to take care of yourself. I watched him become the dad to three children, with three different young women. So yeah, I know it from that point of view. And when I told his girlfriend, it probably would be good if you waited [to get pregnant] until Eddie had a job and could provide for you, and you could have an apartment of your own instead of going back and living with your mom, she said, “You are so old-fashioned. She knew that if she got pregnant she could get support from the state, that it worked for her, and I didn’t know that. One of the things you learn is that people do make access that are rational from their circumstances that look crazy from the outside.