On Saturday, March 24, on a practice baseball field under a bank of clouds at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), 59-year-old Robert* packed his belongings. The unshaven man with happy eyes wore a small wooden cross around his neck, underscoring his faith that he might soon find a permanent place to live. All around him, about 90 other homeless men and women took down tents, folded tarps, and filled plastic trash bags with clothing and keepsakes before loading them into a truck. After three months at SPU, Tent City 3, a mobile homeless camp managed by the residents, was moving from Queen Anne to a parking lot five miles away at Saint Mark’s Cathedral on Capitol Hill. Robert planned to join the others at the new site, explaining that he lost his home three years ago after he was evicted by a landlord (“exiled,” as he puts it). “The way I see it,” he says, glancing at his neighbors, “we’re all exiles.”
Overseen by SHARE/WHEEL, a nonprofit Seattle-based homelessness advocacy group, the tent city is part solution to homeless persons’ need for shelter and part ongoing public relations effort to keep the issue in the public eye. As the tent city moves, it garners strong reactions, including demands that it leave a neighborhood, which is what happened on Beacon Hill shortly after the camp’s founding in 2000. City officials denied a permit allowing it to stay at El Centro de la Raza, a Chicano/Latino social justice organization. But a judge ruled that the city erred, and the parties signed a consent decree allowing the camp to stay. On the other end of the continuum, communities have actively sought the camp’s presence to create “teachable moments.” Audrey Riddle, a blond, pale, 21-year-old SPU junior from Pennsylvania, worked with other student advocates for three years to bring the camp to her school. During the camp’s stay, Riddle served as the school’s student ambassador to the tent city, and just before the residents departed, they adopted her. “I’m now an honorary member of Tent City 3,” she said, holding back tears as her new friends prepared to leave.
Homelessness has been on the national agenda since the 1980s, when Congress began allocating federal money to the issue. A large number of plans and programs, including tent cities, are under way; locally, the most sweeping is the optimistically named “Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness,” a multi-agency, coordinated attack on the problem now in its seventh year (slated to wind down in 2015). Progress appears to be slow and painful, locally and nationally. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), the nation’s homeless population fell 1 percent, from 643,067 in 2009 to 636,017 in 2011, a decrease labeled “remarkable” by the NAEH, given the recession.
But the numbers in Seattle tell a somewhat different story. Every January, volunteers count the number of people living outdoors in green spaces, under bridges and in alleys. In 2006, according to the nonprofit Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, the “One Night Count” found 1,946 people living on the street. This year, the number was up to 2,594, although it has fallen from its peak of 2,827 in 2009. And according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), total homelessness in Seattle and King County rose 14.1 percent between 2006 and 2010. People working on the homelessness issue in Seattle caution against reading too much into these statistics. The universe of variables is enormous; they range from the quantity and quality of shelters, the types of homeless individuals, even the climate. But it’s clear that the absolute total of homeless people in the Seattle area is growing. According to the NAEH, Washington state’s rate of family homelessness is three and a half times the national average.
It’s clear that the absolute total of homeless people in the Seattle area is growing. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Washington state’s rate of family homelessness is three and a half times the national average.
That’s not to say Seattle isn’t trying hard to stop homelessness. The federal, state and local governments, as well as dozens of nonprofits, ranging from church food banks to the Gates Foundation, have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into housing and services for the homeless. From 2005 to 2011, Congress allocated more than $141.6 million in HUD money to King County’s homeless programs alone. In addition, voters and local elected officials have approved several revenue streams dedicated to homeless programs. Since 2006, these taxes and fees have totaled $54.8 million. In 2007, the Gates Foundation finished a $40 million project targeted at family homelessness in King County, and it’s in the midst of a $65 million follow-up project. When you add everything up, Seattle is in the same league as New York and San Francisco when it comes to resources aimed at homelessness.
Much of this spending is intended to save money in the long run. Homelessness is expensive for taxpayers, who foot the bill for services, and police and hospital costs that some homeless people incur. Elected officials and advocates across the country have come to see that getting homeless people into shelters and permanent homes will ultimately cost less. Evidence from Seattle offers proof: A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that from November 2005 to March 2007, a Seattle program for public inebriates that combined shelter and treatment cut costs from $4,006 per month per person to just $958 for the same after only one year.
Still, local homeless advocates say we aren’t doing enough. In February, a set of shelters in King County run by SHARE/WHEEL was operating at 96.9 percent of capacity—essentially full. Alison Eisinger is executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, one of the oldest homeless advocacy groups in the country. She predicts that the cumulative effect of state budget cuts and rising rents will mean an overall increase in homelessness, even if the economy improves. “With body blow after body blow coming at us, we cannot end homelessness,” Eisinger says. In 2011, the King County office that oversees the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness published a midplan review, which said that more than 18,000 households had found permanent housing, largely through homeless programs, since 2005. But the recession’s headwinds are likely to keep the plan from reaching its ultimate goal, Eisinger says. “If we do not have the restoration of our social safety net and an increase in affordable, stable housing, we will still have homeless people in 2016,” she says.
Success may depend on how you define it. The Ten-Year Plan’s midplan review noted some problems in counting homeless people and tracking their movement through programs. Even defining homelessness itself in order to quantify success or failure is daunting: Is a family that has to live in their car for a few days until they can move into subsidized housing homeless? That hasn’t stopped project director Bill Block from setting ambitious targets, such as meeting the federal government’s goal of limiting a person’s experience in the homelessness system to just 20 days. However, Block admits he isn’t sure how many days a homeless person currently spends in the system, which makes progress difficult to measure. To understand his starting point, he needs data. “We’re really moving to a data-driven set of decisions, not decisions based on anecdotes on what works and doesn’t work,” he says.
To get the data, Block and his group, the Committee to End Homelessness, a coalition of local governments, faith communities, nonprofits, businesses and citizens, is asking services providers to survey their clients on a variety of data points. That request has led to a revolt among some advocacy groups, including SHARE/WHEEL. In March, the group announced it was dropping out of the Committee to End Homelessness and the Ten-Year Plan. “What we’re saying is, ‘Forget it!’” says Lantz Rowland, an unofficial spokesman for Tent City 3, who lives in the camp. He argues that the Ten-Year Plan doesn’t do enough to alleviate the homeless’s immediate needs: surviving the elements and the dangers of living on the street. “We just do survival; we provide shelter,” Rowland says. “The cure isn’t collecting demographic information.” But Block says collecting data is crucial. “It’s not enough just to put people into shelter.”
Squabbling is inevitable when people are passionate about an issue, and the stakes—loads of money and the lives of society’s most vulnerable—are high. Seattle has made a rare commitment to fixing homelessness, but it isn’t clear whether the hundreds of millions of dollars spent over the past few years has made a lasting dent in the problem. Advocates are showing no signs of giving up: The Committee to End Homelessness is ramping up a program to reunite homeless youths with their families when it’s safe to do so; local advocates are implementing a Five-Year Plan to End Homelessness Among Veterans; and with the help of the Gates Foundation, more than 30 agencies are starting a new effort called “coordinated entry” to encourage service providers to work together to get homeless people into housing more quickly. For Robert and the more than 2,500 other people on the street, help can’t come fast enough.