From my vantage point in the Seattle Channel’s basement studio at City Hall, the holidays always seem to come early. The City Council has wrestled over the budget and voted to approve it, and the mayor has signed it. So what’s really left to do before the start of the New Year? The answer this time around: plenty. We’re working on a City Inside/Out program set to air Dec. 19 about the aggressive timeline Mayor Ed Murray has set to deal with our rising homeless population. Housing advocates have called the city’s homelessness crisis “an emergency,” with at least 3,000 people sleeping on the street in Seattle every night.
You may have seen the cluster of tents off of Interstate 5 at the James Street off ramp, or maybe there’s even a new tent city in your neighborhood. The story behind what you’re seeing, according to the Mayor’s Office, is our homeless population has jumped 30 percent in the last four years, and there’s no sign that number is slowing down. Brian Chandler of the Union Gospel Mission tells me a few years ago he would send out search-and-rescue crews three or four nights a week to engage with people on the street in an effort to help turn their lives around. Now, those crews are heading out seven nights a week. But even when outreach agencies like the Mission make a connection, beds aren’t always available. The city of Seattle invests $9 million a year to provide about 2,400 shelter beds every night, but that’s not enough to keep up with demand.
The mayor convened an Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness (made up of religious leaders, business owners and social service agencies) which hopes to deliver recommendations by the end of the month. Some of the ideas the task force is considering include opening community centers that aren’t being used in the evening to shelter the homeless. The group is also weighing whether to allow homeless people to camp on vacant city-owned land on a semi-permanent basis—a change from the current law which permits homeless encampments on church properties. This is a contentious issue for the City Council, which last year voted down a bill (5-4) to expand areas of the city where tent encampments for the homeless could be located. But with the departure of Councilmember Richard Conlin (who voted no) and the arrival of Councilmember Kshama Sawant (who appears to be a yes vote), we may have some big changes ahead for how our city deals with its homeless.
So while it might appear as if the movers and shakers at City Hall are down for a long winter’s nap now that the budget’s done, don’t believe it. When it comes to new ways to handle our homeless population, we could see plenty of fireworks soon, and they won’t be over the Space Needle on New Year’s Eve.
Brian Callanan is the public affairs host for Seattle Channel.