Tent Cities: Can We Do Better?

Photo Credit: javacolleen via Compfight CC-BY-NC-ND.
Photo Credit: javacolleen via Compfight CC-BY-NC-ND.

Years ago, working at a newspaper in Rhode Island, there was an elderly photographer who would stop by the office every day to get his latest assignments. People would always ask him, “How you doin’ Hap?” His response was always the same — “Better than nuthin’.”

That’s how a lot of homeless activists view the Seattle City Council’s recent unanimous vote to allow three new 100-person homeless encampments in the city, commonly refered to as tent cities, on both public and private land. That’ll provide shelter for only 300 of the estimated 4,000 Seattleites who are currently sleeping in cars, doorways and wooded areas every night. As my late friend Hap would say, “Better than nuthin’.”

This does represents a new direction for the council which has previously shied away from sanctioning non-permanent housing. Two years ago, the council voted against adding tent cities. But four council members switched their vote this year including Sally Clark, who resigned from the council shortly after the vote (Richard Conlin, who also opposed encampments was voted out of office). Mayor Ed Murray also had a change of heart about encampments in the past year — the Mayor’s now an advocate of tent cities.

Part of the reason for the turnaround? Homelessness just keeps growing in Seattle. The city currently ranks behind only New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas in homeless population. Once a year in January, volunteers canvas the street as part of the King County One Night Count To End Homelessness. According to their last head count, 3,772 people are living in cars, or sleeping outside. These numbers are always believed to be on the conservative side because many people sleeping in cars or the streets are trying to stay out of sight. Along with 3,282 who are sleeping in shelters and 2,093 currently in transitional housing, that would bring the overall homeless population to 10,047 in King County.

According to the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) homelessness in the United States has decreased by 3.8% in the last five years. In Seattle, it’s increased by 21% in the last year.

Under the new ordinance, encampments can stay on a site up to twelve months and can apply for a renewal. Any group wishing to apply for running an encampment had to apply by May 15. When the final decision on who runs the camps are made, money will be allocated. Currently there’s only one homeless camp in Seattle: Nickelsville, famously named after former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, now located in the International District. Two Tent Cities can be found on the outskirts of Seattle – in Shoreline and Renton.

It’s hard to argue that three new Tent Cities are anything more than a stop-gap measure that doesn’t provide any longterm solutions. It’s something “we’re settling for,” like a $15 minimum wage which won’t be fully implemented for a couple of years while the dirty little secret is that you need something like $22 an hour to get by in Seattle.

Can we do better than tent cities? Well, when the Seattle City Council was announcing more tent cities the conservative state of Utah announced that homelessness has dropped by 91% in that state over the past eight years. That’s right, Utah, the butt of bad Mitt Romney and polygamy jokes, may have solved the homeless problem, while bastions of liberalism like Seattle and Berkeley continue to push laws against the homeless (see Seattle’s ban against smoking in public parks passed this week).

In 2006, Utah began a “Housing First” program building apartments for 1,914 of the state’s chronically homeless. Many were mentally ill or addicted to drugs and alcohol. The state figured the annual cost of emergency rooms and jail was approximately $16,700 a person, compared to $11,000 to provide each homeless citizen with an apartment and a social worker. And technically the housing isn’t free. Residents pay $50 a month or 30% of their income if they can work. Perhaps that’ll please conservatives who are worried about the homeless getting handouts.

Of course, Utah has about 8,000 fewer homeless people than the greater Seattle area. However, the City of Seattle successfully implemented a limited Housing First-like program in 2010. Under the auspices of the Downtown Emergency Services Center, seventy-five units were given to formerly homeless alcoholics at 1811 Eastlake. Sometimes these complexes are called “wet houses,” because residents are under no obligation to “sober up,” although studies show that alcoholics tend to drink less when they have shelter. Estimates are that 1811 Eastlake also saved the city $4 million in its first year of existence, reducing resident trips to jails or emergency rooms (which they would make if they were living on the street).

One would expect the same would be true with the rest of the homeless community. Seattle University’s Homeless Resource Advocacy Project also just released a study showing the amount of money cities spend on enforcing “anti-homeless” laws like public urination, totaling $3.7 million in Seattle and Spokane over the past five years. The study also said that Housing First programs could save the city $2 million a year.

The cliche response to Housing First programs is that “their time has come.” But the reality may be that they are long overdue.

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