By Erica C. Barnett
Over the weekend, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat argued that the solution to homelessness in Seattle—a problem that afflicts more than 12,000 people in King County—was to build 1,000 new tiny house villages and “enforce the laws” against “camping” in public areas by removing the people who remain.
To demonstrate his point, Westneat used the example of John C. Little Park, Sr. in the New Holly mixed-income housing complex, where more than a dozen tents have occupied a space near the restroom and a playground used by the community. In Westneat’s telling, workers from the Low Income Housing Institute showed up at the camp and offered them spots in tiny house villages—encampments that offer case management, privacy, and a sense of safety and community—and within “15 minutes,” nearly everyone had agreed to leave.
All that is true. But there is much more to the story. And the debate over what happened at John C. Little, Sr. Park is a microcosm of the issues Seattle will face in transitioning city-led homeless outreach from a system led by the Navigation Team to one led primarily by providers but housed, as before, inside the city.
“My office asked if LIHI was aware of any spaces where folks could, basically, safely camp and not be near playgrounds, and they offered to move them into some tiny houses that had become available. They were very knowledgeable and treated everyone with dignity.”—District 2 Council Member Tammy Morales
The first thing to know about the John C. Little encampment LIHI didn’t discover the encampment by accident—they were asked to go there by city council member Tammy Morales, who represents New Holly, at the behest of residents whose kids haven’t been able to use the playground in months. Morales said she saw her approach as a win-win: New Holly residents “got their playground back for their kids who are at home,” and 15 people, including one man who had just returned to the encampment from Harborview with a diagnosis of pneumonia, got safer places to stay.
“My office asked if LIHI was aware of any spaces where folks could, basically, safely camp and not be near playgrounds, and they offered to move them into some tiny houses that had become available,” Morales said. “They were very knowledgeable and treated everyone with dignity.”
The relocation of the people living in the park was a win for LIHI too: Proof that people prefer to move to tiny houses over traditional shelter, and that LIHI—although not authorized by the city to do outreach in encampments—is well-positioned to do so. After the move, LIHI director Sharon Lee sent a letter to HSD director Jason Johnson, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, and Seattle Parks Department director Jesús Aguirre touting their success at John C. Little as an example of “a new way of doing outreach.”
“LIHI failed to report and bypassed an intentionally designed shelter referral process, implemented to strive for equity of access and prioritize those most in need of the City’s limited shelter resources.”—Seattle Human Services Department
“LIHI staff includes people with lived experience and outreach skills who are effective at working directly with unsheltered homeless people,” Lee wrote. “We understand LIHI is not currently being paid by HSD for ‘outreach’ nor included by HSD staff in outreach planning, but we believe, as shown by last week’s example and our work at CHOP that we are particularly effective in the field.”
LIHI’s decision to move people from the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone directly into tiny house villages in July exasperated HSD, whose director, Jason Johnson, argued that LIHI was cherry-picking clients for tiny houses that should have been available to any outreach provider in the city, not just LIHI. LIHI countered that they had to act quickly because the Seattle Police Department had threatened to remove people from the park—people that, she said, the Navigation Team had failed to shelter before LIHI came along.
Lee’s letter touting a similar action at New Holly sparked a similarly frustrated response from HSD. In an email to city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis, an HSD staffer, speaking for the agency, wrote:
LIHI is required by contract to report vacancies at tiny house villages and the Lakefront Community House to HSD, so that folks living unsheltered in tough conditions across Seattle may access these sought-after public resources. In this instance LIHI failed to report and bypassed an intentionally designed shelter referral process, implemented to strive for equity of access and prioritize those most in need of the City’s limited shelter resources. By circumventing this process, eleven individuals were prioritized for referrals as a result of a location-based outreach effort—potentially taking those highly sought after shelter resources away from other unsheltered individuals with higher needs in other parts of the city. …
It’s also worth mentioning that LIHI is not contracted by the City to do outreach, nor to decide who can or cannot access tiny houses and enhanced shelter. At times, LIHI has shied away from taking in more high-need individuals into their shelters, leaving very vulnerable people on the streets—which is one of the reasons why outreach is conducted by professionally trained outreach agencies like DESC’s HOST program, Chief Seattle Club, Urban League and REACH. This system-wide perspective is something contracted agencies on their own do not have, but would continue to be leveraged by the Unsheltered Outreach and Response Team or HOPE team, in partnership with providers, this year and beyond.
The new HOPE program, which was part of a compromise between the mayor and council on homelessness outreach and engagement, is supposed to serve as a sort of governmental nerve center connecting outreach providers in the field with the most appropriate shelter and service referrals for unsheltered people they encounter in the field.
Whether it will work that way is an open question. Transitioning to a system where outreach providers use a city-run system to make referrals will require significant resources as well as major culture shifts within agencies accustomed to seeing the city as a roadblock. LIHI’s decision to go around the process the city is working to establish is just one example of how agencies may choose to circumvent a new centralized system that, in the interest of fairness to people living unsheltered, creates an extra layer of process.
Lee, who had been unaware of HSD’s response to her email touting LIHI’s success at moving the park residents into tiny houses, said she doesn’t understand why HSD doesn’t see LIHI’s actions at both John C. Little and in Cal Anderson Park—which, after all, result in fewer people sleeping in parks, regardless of which particular people they are—as a positive outcome.
“We ended up moving 15 people from John C. Little Park into tiny houses, and it’s a good thing, because we helped out the parks department, we helped out the neighborhood and we helped out the people who were living in dire living conditions,” Lee said. “If the neighborhood is trying to access the park and there’s issues around trash and needles and an unsafe environment for kids, you want to have a coordinated effort that moves the whole group.”
Lee argues that the old system, in which HSD’s Navigation Team decided where unsheltered people would go (and which encampments to target) was both inefficient and biased—the Navigation Team often responded to encampments based on neighborhood complaints, for example, rather than an objective assessment of people’s needs. According to Lee, the team would also refer people to LIHI’s villages that weren’t a good fit. “They were just so eager to move people to any village, and there would be placements that didn’t work.”
“Who and what is the priority at any given time? Is it John C. Little Park, or is it people who are particularly vulnerable spread out across a bunch of camps around the city?” — District 7 City Council Member Andrew Lewis
Lewis, who—along with Morales—helped broker the compromise that replaced the Navigation Team with the new HOPE program, said he sees both sides of the argument. On one hand, he said, he appreciates HSD’s “concern that if they have some people who are shelter operators in their system that are basically cutting in line by doing their own [outreach] operations, it’s going to cut into the ability to have this citywide system.” On the other, he praised the “sense of urgency” LIHI showed by responding to Morales’ request quickly and demonstrating “their desire to show a proof of concept that they have a model that works.”
Ultimately, Lewis said, he hopes the city will move toward a system where homeless service providers willingly use the tools established by the city because there’s no longer any incentive to circumvent the system, as there was under the previous approach. “I share [providers’] criticism that the Navigation Team was sort of political, in that if a particular business or particular interest group requested a removal at a particular location, that removal was prioritized above someone else in another place,” Lewis said. The Navigation Team had exclusive access to certain shelter options; with the team dissolved, those beds will be available to all outreach providers who contract with the city.
“We will always lead with engagement [and] try to get people inside … but the city council and providers also acknowledge that there will be times when that does not work and an encampment will have to be relocated.”—Mayor Jenny Durkan
One worst-case scenario might be a replacement of one balkanized, highly political system with another, in which providers are able to go around the system and select the “easiest” clients for shelter, or city council members are able to clear parks in their districts without regard for which people need shelter the most. “Who and what is the priority at any given time?” Lewis said. “Is it John C. Little Park, or is it people who are particularly vulnerable spread out across a bunch of camps around the city?”
Lee, and Morales, argue that as long as there are thousands more people living outdoors than there are beds in hotels, shelters, or tiny house villages to accommodate them all, any selection process—whether it’s based on people’s needs, their geographical location, or lobbying from business groups—will still leave thousands of people literally in the cold. “With 5,000 unsheltered people on the street, it’s not feasible to figure out” how everyone in every encampment ranks on a scale of vulnerability and need,” Lee said. “You can’t hold up a vacant tiny house while you figure out who, across the city, is the most needy.”
Morales, who spearheaded the creation of the new HOPE program, said that while she didn’t know exactly “what [LIHI’s] contract with HSD says, what I know is that there were people who needed a place to be. If folks are living on the streets with winter coming, we need to get as many folks inside as possible.”
With a vaccine—and with it, an easing of pandemic restrictions—in sight, the pressure to remove unsheltered people from public spaces is certain to increase over the coming year. This week, while signing the 2021 budget that includes funding for the new HOPE team, Mayor Jenny Durkan mentioned that “our open spaces, in our parks and our neighborhoods, have suffered” from the impact of unsheltered people,
“and we need to take steps in our city to change that.”
When PubliCola asked for clarification on this point—did the mayor intend to ramp up encampment removals again once it becomes safer for people to move around in public?—Durkan responded, “We will always lead with engagement [and] try to get people inside … but the city council and providers also acknowledge that there will be times when that does not work and an encampment will have to be relocated.”
As long as that remains the case, and as long as there are both insufficient shelter beds and insufficient housing so that people can actually exit the shelter system once they enter, the debate over the appropriate response to unsheltered homelessness, and who “owns” the process of moving people from encampments to shelter, will undoubtedly continue.