By Erica C. Barnett
On Wednesday, two debates on homelessness highlighted stark differences between how each of the mayoral candidates—current Seattle City Council president Lorena González and former council member Bruce Harrell—would address the homelessness crisis. The first was sponsored by the Resolution to End Homelessness; the second, by We Are In and the Seattle Times.
As the Times noted in its own coverage of its debate, Harrell frequently responded to direct questions by changing the subject—answering a question about access to public restrooms, for example, by repeating a talking point about how people don’t care who’s to blame for the homelessness crisis—and claimed several times to have run into people he knew growing up in the Central District when visiting encampments and tiny house villages.
“”Mr. Harrell’s homelessness plan is a verbatim facsimile of a corporate and Republican-funded plan, commonly referred to as Compassion Seattle.”—Lorena González
González, meanwhile, focused on more long-term solutions to homelessness, like changing the city’s zoning code and building 37,000 new housing units in King County—the number a 2020 report said would be necessary to solve the county’s affordable-housing crisis—even in response to questions about how to address the problem of unsheltered homelessness in the short term.
Here are some of the key points on which Harrell and González offered starkly different approaches on homelessness.
Funding for Homelessness Response
Harrell, who has proposed a homeless strategy that is basically identical to the erstwhile “Compassion Seattle” charter initiative, said the city has more than enough resources already, between existing city funds and potential corporate philanthropy, to solve unsheltered homelessness and “get our parks and our open spaces, and our sidewalks clean.”
Asked whether the city needs additional resources to fund housing, shelters, or services for people experiencing homelessness, Harrell responded than in 12 years on the council, he had never reached a point where “you have enough money to solve all of your problems. You have to take some principles of business into play and make sure that you do an inventory of what assets you have, you use them efficiently and effectively, you start solving the problem.”
“Seattle should not look at this as though we have a scarcity of resources,” Harrell said.
Harrell added that while the city worked to get new progressive revenue options from the state legislature (options that the state legislature has so far declined to provide), the city should also ask “wealthy corporations” with “corporate social responsibility goals” to contribute funding, which could produce “hundreds of millions of dollars” to address homelessness.
“Seattle should not look at [homelessness] as though we have a scarcity of resources.” — Bruce Harrell
González, in contrast, pointed to her co-sponsorship of the JumpStart payroll tax as an example of the kind of progressive revenue she’d work to expand as mayor, and criticized Harrell’s proposal to build 2,000 shelter “units” in one year using existing revenues (i.e. the Compassion Seattle plan) as inadequate to address the need. “Mr. Harrell’s homelessness plan is a verbatim facsimile of a corporate and Republican funded plan, commonly referred to as Compassion Seattle,” González said, calling it a plan “to legitimize sweeps… with the fig leaf of only an additional 1 percent of funding to address this crisis.”
During both debates, Harrell dodged direct questions about whether he supports “sweeps”—the forcible removal of unsheltered people from public spaces—rejecting the word itself as “radioactive.” Instead, he pointed to his support from faith leaders and his support for the United Way of King County, where his wife, Joanne, was CEO for several years.
“You allow people to donate not just money, but their time, their expertise,” he said. “I believe that the city can do that. And so we shouldn’t have to look at the human suffering of other people, and that’s my attitude going in, that I will bring into the mayor’s office: We don’t have to see it, and we’re going to lead with love, and we will make sure that people can enjoy their parks and have a quality of life that they deserve.”
González, noting Harrell’s frequent references to “cleaning” parks so that housed people can use them, said she wouldn’t shut down encampments until “the city does its job and provides provides the shelter and the housing that’s necessary to actually transition poor people out of poverty. … As mayor, I’m going to leverage every available resource. And I’m committed to rapidly rehousing people into meeting the needs of shelter housing and mental health needs of all of those we are currently failing.”
González said that one of her first steps as mayor would be to work “with city staff, with community service providers, and with housing providers to immediately create individual service plans, and to immediately identify who is ready to come inside, based on an adequate offer of housing and shelter.” Beyond that, she said she would identify new resources to fund shelter and housing for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness—about 37,000 units countywide.
“The reality is that right now, on any given night, we do not have enough shelter for the nearly 4,000 people who are sleeping outside,” González said. “It is critically important for us to remain committed to … approaches that are going to reduce trauma, and also increase our success in actually ending homelessness, not just hiding it.”
“We shouldn’t have to look at the human suffering of other people, and that’s my attitude going in, that I will bring into the mayor’s office: We don’t have to see it, and we’re going to lead with love, and we will make sure that people can enjoy their parks and have a quality of life that they deserve.”—Bruce Harrell
Harrell said he would adopt a mix of upstream and downstream approaches, including early childhood education, health care for people who can’t get funding through other government programs, mentoring and life skills classes, and a jobs center where people can “tap into their gifts, whether it’s working with their hands, whether they draft code, or they’re artists.” These programs, Harrell said, would be places where “people who may not be chronically homeless, may not have the extent of mental illness that some do, can find employment, can retool themselves, and we’ll bring in mentors and counselors to make sure that they are on a better path.”
Harrell also said he would send “culturally competent” people to do outreach at encampments and suggested that the current outreach system does not provide unsheltered people with outreach workers who “look like them” or have “cultural commonality” with the people they’re attempting to help.
Harold Odom, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition and a longtime resident of a tiny house village in Georgetown, asked both candidates what they would do to avoid the proliferation of tiny-house villages, which he called “Hoovervilles,” around the city. Tiny house villages are a type of enhanced shelter where people live in a community of small shed-like structures and access services through a provider such as the Low-Income Housing Institute, which runs all of the city’s sanctioned tiny house villages.
The issue of tiny house villages is a live one, as the new regional homelessness authority takes over nearly every aspect of Seattle’s homelessness response; the authority’s CEO, Marc Dones, is a tiny house village skeptic.
González said she would work to lower the amount of time people stay in tiny house villages and create a “meaningful transition away from tiny sheds and towards a path of sustainable, safe, appropriate … housing for those who are currently living in those spaces. While we all acknowledged at one point in time that these structures provide a safer option than living in our parks or in doorways or in greenways, I agree that five years in, it now appears that we are baking this in to our intervention strategies.”
Harrell said that he, too, would like to create a goal of moving people from tiny houses into permanent housing more quickly, and pivoted to talking about his health care plan, his plan for a job center, and his Empowerment and Opportunity Program, a mentorship program for Black kids to learn networking, wealth building, and career skills. “I want people out of those tiny homes as much as possible as well… just to make sure that we can get our parks and our open spaces and our sidewalks clean,” he said. “And I said publicly, it’s inhumane just to ignore people’s conditions. So… we’re going to get them services that they currently do not have.”
People who “don’t want help”
At both debates, the candidates were asked some version of the question, “What do you do with people who refuse services because they just want to live outside?”
Harrell responded that the issue is often not that people don’t want help, but that the people doing outreach lack “cultural competence” to relate to the people living unsheltered because they’re of a different race or cultural background or just have different life experiences. “We will have people from their communities, whether it’s [the same] lived experience, or from their particular demographic—people with cultural commonality—to do our outreach. And … we will ask them exactly why there’s some resistance, because at the end of the day, we realize some people may have trauma.”
He added, though, that there are some people in encampments committing serious crimes, including sex trafficking, “and so when I say there’s going to be consequences, it’s individualized on whatever action is particularly occurring.”
González, quoting from a speech by REACH neighborhood care coordinator David Delgado, said that it can take years to transition someone from unsheltered homelessness into permanent housing, because the services that are available aren’t appropriate for a particular person. “People in encampments are not refusing services, they’re just not being offered adequate services,” she said. “It is our responsibility to not just casually offer something for the sake of offering something, it’s our obligation as a society, as a city, as a government, to offer people in deep, profound need the services and the shelter that is appropriate.”
González has made housing density a centerpiece of her campaign, and has proposed allowing apartments in the 80 percent of Seattle’s residential land that is zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. “I believe that in order to have equity in the city and to fulfill our racial equity values, we need more housing choices, everywhere in the city, not just in a handful of concentrated areas of the city,” González said. “And that’s why, unlike my opponent, I believe that we need to allow affordable rental housing, community land trusts, and more affordable types of housing to be built in our residential neighborhoods.”
Harrell countered with the argument that there is already plenty of “zoning capacity” in the city to build adequate housing—a threadbare claim that rests on the idea that the city would have plenty of housing if everyone living on land that could be built more densely would simply sell their own home to, say, a townhouse developer. Harrell also argued that allowing more density everywhere would destroy the traditional way Black families built generational wealth—by buying a house and passing it down to their kids.
“I’m somewhat concerned about the answer that my opponent gave, because once again people miss the mark in terms of how you achieve generational wealth or parity in terms of racial demographics,” Harrell said. Traditionally, “the house was one of the most practical and common means to pass on generational wealth amongst Black families. And even if we house someone, the disparities in health outcomes and employment opportunities and environmental justice issues, they all present themselves in terms of unfairness.”