An Open Letter
to the Board of United Way
Published as an editorial in the April 2 weekly edition of Real Change.
Dear United Way,
Over the years, the United Way of King County has been a valued leader and community partner in the fight to end homelessness in this region. More than seven years ago, United Way adopted ending homelessness as a program focus. The priorities you have identified — reducing and preventing poverty, public education, and supportive housing — have dramatically increased public understanding and engagement on this issue while making a critical difference in the lives of the most vulnerable.
Your most recent initiative — a pledge to raise $25 million to create housing with services for chronically homeless people — is a large goal that will have an important impact on the problem. As you know, homelessness is the result of multiple system failures, and growing poverty is a deeply entrenched problem in America that will require fundamental shifts in public policy and federal priorities to solve.
So we all do our part, and make the changes we can. Sadly, the forces that create poverty and homelessness are deeply systemic, and none of us have the resources and expertise on our own that are required to accomplish the daunting task of ending homelessness.
United Way has played a key role in documenting and expanding the broad public support that exists for ending homelessness, growing the available resources, and making an immediate difference in the lives of thousands. Your leadership and commitment on this issue are deeply appreciated by your allies.
There are times, however, when more is required.
As you know, the City of Seattle’s recent policy shift toward homeless encampments on public lands has been deeply controversial and troubling to those of us who understand the realities of survival on the streets. The most recent One Night Count of street homelessness, coordinated by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, documented a 15% increase in the area's unsheltered homeless population.
There are many reasons to avoid Seattle’s emergency shelter system. The hours and rules are inconvenient. Many homeless people suffer from stress-related disorders and are unable to cope with the noise and confusion of a typical shelter environment. Others worry that shelter will rob them of their dignity and independence. Some are concerned that shelter will separate them from family or pets. There are those whose addictions lead them to make self-destructive choices.
And, of course, the shelters are full. This year’s count, performed during the predawn hours of a cold January night, found 2,631 people surviving outside on a night when even the severe weather overflow shelter was filled past capacity.
Until recently, City policy toward homeless encampments took this reality into consideration. Unless a pattern of neighborhood complaint established that an encampment presented a public safety hazard, campsites on public lands were largely left alone. When campsite removals proved necessary, long-established protocols for outreach, notification, and storage of possessions were followed.
Last spring, the Mayor and his staff enacted a dramatic policy shift toward homeless encampments. Numerous sites were identified for proactive monthly sweeps. When various outrages related to this policy shift — clearance notices with a long defunct phone number to call for help, the summary destruction of possessions, and an inexcusable absence of outreach efforts, to name a few — came to public attention, the Mayor’s staff began to construct new protocols on “unauthorized homeless encampments. “
Draft protocols were released for public review over the latter part of January and were widely criticized as overly punitive and offering little of substance to those who face the challenges of outdoor survival. During more than three hours of public testimony, not one supporter stepped forward.
Most of the organizations that work to meet the needs of homeless people in Seattle oppose the sweeps and have signed onto the Real Change Organizing Project statement of principle. This reads: The 2008 One Night Count found more than 2,600 persons surviving outside in greater Seattle on a winter night when emergency shelters were full. Meanwhile, the Mayor's Office continues to pursue a policy of demolishing homeless people's encampments and throwing away their property without providing any alternative shelter. It is inhumane and immoral to punish people for living outside when there is not enough shelter or affordable housing to meet the need. We, the undersigned call on Mayor Nickels to stop all non-emergency sweeps immediately and expand housing and services instead of criminalizing survival.
While a full list of signatories may be found on the on-line petition at the Real Change website, most of Seattle’s major sheltering and housing institutions have registered their concern. These include the Archdiocesan Housing Authority, The Compass Center, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, the Low Income Housing Institute, Plymouth Housing Group, the Seattle Human Services Coalition, Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, and the University District Service Providers Alliance.
The United Way of King County is the City’s largest and most influential institution on this issue. While we certainly understand your reluctance to weigh in on controversial public policy issues, your silence in this case comes at a cost to Seattle’s homeless.
The City is expected to release a final draft of the new protocols sometime in mid-April. While no one knows the extent to which the concerns of advocates will be met, we have deep concerns with a policy that criminalizes camping on public land while offering clearly insufficient alternatives.
We are concerned that notification and outreach efforts will not recognize the critical role of relationship building in reaching the toughest cases. We believe that City policy will scatter homeless campers while deepening their resistance to obtaining services.
We call upon the United Way of King County to exercise leadership on this issue. Legitimate public safety concerns can be met without deepening the misery that homeless people face.