What if, three years ago, we had taken the problem of homelessness seriously? How many people living in the woods or sleeping in the doorway of a business would have by now transitioned into treatment, jobs or housing?
Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, who cut his journalistic teeth covering south King County many years ago, recently raised that question regarding Seattle’s plan for the homeless. More than a year ago, Seattle wanted to build 1,000, 96-square-foot insulated “tiny houses.” It was to be an answer to both homelessness and temporary housing during the major earthquake that seems certain to hit us one day.
Seattle has only built 28.
The “tiny houses” idea was brought to the public’s attention by former Federal Way Mirror editor Andy Hobbs, who now writes for The Olympian. It gained additional regional readership with a Matt Driscoll story in the Tacoma News Tribune.
Hobbs captures the impact of Olympia’s Quixote Village with its 30, 144-square-foot buildings. The name of the village is from Cervantes’ fictional knight Don Quixote. The houses have a bed, a half-bathroom, a porch, heating and electricity. I wrote about this concept last year after reading about creative ideas in use in the Association of Washington Cities monthly magazine, the same magazine Federal Way city officials receive. The hope for a level of urgency by our elected officials about the growing problem has yet to materialize.
We, like Seattle in Westneat’s story, have missed opportunities to reduce the plight of the homeless.
Here’s what we have done in the last three years:
City officials agreed to support a day center for homeless people that would have showers, a place to receive mail and contact social services. It recently opened, although city spending was spread out over two years. That is a step, but the day center should have served as a community center for a village such as the one in Olympia. Without private places to sleep, the homeless still must return to the woods, a bench or a doorway each night. Without providing a place to sleep, expressions of concern seem hollow.
What else have we done? Prior to the completion of the day center, the city, with its “get-out-of-town” message, closed 13 homeless encampments at a cost of $30,000 each. That’s $390,000 in police, staff and other city expenses. The cost of Seattle’s “tiny houses” were $2,200 each, although the Olympia houses were more expensive at $19,000 each. That’s a workable range, and the same public land used for the encampments could be used for the houses. With that model, we could have provided enough houses to take care of many of our homeless and either built a community facility or provided shuttles between the houses and the day center.
We not only didn’t help, we actually made it harder for the homeless to find other options. Fear of apartments and poor people resulted in a mayor-council moratorium on new apartments. When homeless people finally get needed training or assistance and are able to transition from “tiny houses” or other living arrangements, there may not be anything for them to move into in Federal Way. We should be building more apartments to meet the demand. As a matter of good planning and economics, however, City Hall should also be encouraging more middle class and upscale housing as well.
The message to the homeless has been, “We don’t want you here.” Councilwoman Dini Duclos was concerned about Seattle’s homeless moving here. Maybe Seattle should be concerned about our homeless moving there, although that seems unlikely since most of our homeless have a family or historical tie to Federal Way. We are “our brother’s keeper.” These are our neighbors and our responsibility and shouldn’t be sent elsewhere.
Election years always produce interesting twists. Incumbent Mayor Jim Ferrell made a deft political move with his “tag you’re it” approach when he asked his mayoral opponent, councilwoman Susan Honda, to co-chair a committee on the homeless problem. That will make housing and leadership major political issues in debates.
Had we taken the problem of the homeless seriously three years ago, however, we might actually have been close to solving it by now. The land is available, and the city has spent enough money closing encampments to have taken 100 to 200 people off the streets. They just spent it with the wrong goal in mind. What of the other benefit? What if that big earthquake hits now? The Community Center, performing arts center, Dumas Bay and school gymnasiums will only be short term. Where will the city put all the new homeless then?
Will the election finally produce the dialogue and the leadership we need to solve the problem? Or will next winter find us in the same place?
Candidates Ferrell and Honda, the clock is ticking: Time to lead.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former Auburn mayor and a retired public official. He can be reached at email@example.com.