(Photos by WSB’s Patrick Sand)
The two City Council members who did not sign last week’s letter calling for the Nickelsville encampment’s closure by September 1st were among three councilmembers who came to West Seattle last night for a forum on homelessness.
Their divergent positions on the matter were evident when all three – Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien, who weren’t part of the letter, and Tom Rasmussen, who was – responded to an audience question asking about “the plan” for the shutdown. We have that part of the discussion on video:
Ahead, the rest of what was discussed – what’s the city doing regarding homelessness in general, and what community members can do to help:
The forum was organized by the Westside Interfaith Network, a new name for a not-so-new coalition of West Seattle/White Center-area faith-based organizations. They say they invited the mayor and all nine councilmembers; the aforementioned three showed up, plus a representative for Councilmember Sally Bagshaw who sat on the panel but did not speak.
Many have been working to help homeless people and others in need – including people at the encampment – in their own quiet ways.
The goal of the event, moderated by White Center Food Bank executive director Rick Jump, was to try to find out from the councilmembers what the city is doing toward its stated goal of ending homelessness, and what community members/organizations can do to be most effective in helping.
“May we never lose sight of what really matters in life,” was part of the invocation delivered as the forum began with about 50 people on hand at Our Lady of Guadalupe‘s Pastoral Life Center.
A representative of Alki UCC was the first to ask a question. “You’ve kind of been in the hot seat lately,” she observed, “with the very complicated and challenging issue of disbanding Nickelsville,” she said to the councilmembers, going on to observe that “homelessness is increasing, it’s not going away. … We feel that the rise of homelessness, especially family homelessness, is a disgrace.” She read from a statement saying that she believes our area has the resources but apparently not the will. “Housing ends homelessness,” she said, wondering if every housing development could be asked to include a certain percentage of affordable housing. “If they wish to come into our city and make megaprofits off our resources, then they need to pay their way,” she went on, suggesting other cities required developers to do so, while ours does not. “What does it take” to do this? she asked the councilmembers.
First to answer, Councilmember Licata: “What it takes is political will, simple as that.” He also noted that the “public has shown the will to tax itself to build affordable housing …but the private sector has not stepped up to the plate.” He singled out South Lake Union, saying only 450 of 5,000 needed affordable-housing units are to be required. “… My goal this year is to get legislation passed that says 10 percent of new construction should have affordable housing in it.” Right now, he said, it’s less than five percent, but “… it’s something we need your help with.”
Next, Councilmember Rasmussen suggested “incentive zoning” regarding allowing developers to build higher. “(But) I do want you to know that the City of Seattle is doing a tremendous amount (to help with homelessness) … $30 million … no other city provides as much as we do.” But, he said, the city has other responsibilities too. He went on to say that people come here because of the programs offered – but there’s a limit, so “they end up being disappointed … so I think it’s important for our city and our state to do more for the people in our community who need help.” He spoke of talking with people he finds on the streets and asking what communities they came from, finding a way to see how they can be helped without leaving their communities of origin. While in San Diego recently, he said, he learned Seattle has “a reputation” as “Free-attle” because of the services that are available.
Councilmember O’Brien said that he understands the state constitution places some limits “on what we can do.” The council is now convening “national experts,” in the wake of “what happened in Lake Union,” to find out more about what can be done in the future, “what can developers afford.” He says “a lot of information, looking forward” will come out in the next six to nine months. “My hope is that by the end of this year through this process we’ll have a clear picture on what we need to perceive from a perspective of affordability …” as well as sustainability, and a clear picture on what tools are needed.
A representative of Calvary Lutheran Church was next with a question, asking about the countywide 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness – “how do you evaluate (the plan’s) effectiveness” right now? Where has progress been made? What impedes progress? What part can faith-based groups play?
Licata again brought up the issue of people being drawn here – not just in hopes of a “free ride,” but also in “desperate hope they’ll get a job … So they show up sometimes unrealistically and end up not getting a job, or getting a job and getting laid off .. so what can we do?” He takes that to the issue of housing, and needing “to get people off the streets at night.” So, he said, the Committee to End Homelessness has added that mission – trying to get those people “into shelter and move them as quickly as possible into permanent housing.”
Rasmussen: “Is there a limit to the number of people that we can help? If there are 2,000 people on the street every night, are we responsible (for all of them)?” He says that’s a question those who are concerned need to think about, and if so, how do we pay for it? Where do they live, where do they stay? “In community centers? Churches? Parks? (Tent cities)? Because that’s what we are wrestling with.”
O’Brien: He said “it’s hard to fault” those who come here because there’s a glimmer of hope for a job. “And if we decide we don’t have responsibility for that person – well, they’re still here. … The reality is, we live in a country, in a city, where people move in and out within borders. … At the end of the day, we have an ultimate responsibility for the people who are in our city … Everyone should have a solid roof over their head and not .. something they get kicked out at the end of the day.” But, he said, with all the various types of housing and shelter (including “Nickelsville”), “the demand exceeds the supply.” He also mentions the pilot program for safe parking for people who are sleeping in their cars, currently offering a handful. He says they need more parking lots, “because we’re going to go citywide.”
The next questioner, from OLG, asked about funding sources. O’Brien said the city has “done a good job” maintaining its Human Services budget through the recession, but “at the same time, when you look at the cuts from the federal and state level,” the end user is seeing that the services have been cut, and they don’t care if the city’s doing their part but others have not, if they are losing services. He says the city also keeps asking for permission to raise revenue, if the state will not give money – but “if those fail, how do we get creative in finding new revenue streams?” He said, “It’s a struggle .. there’s no easy answer.”
Councilmember Rasmussen picked up on that, noting that legislators are hearing from the city, but asked the church members on hand to talk to their counterparts at churches around the state, and ask them to make their voices heard too.
Next, a Peace Lutheran Church rep suggested that it’s less costly to prevent homelessness than to fix it. She mentioned the high poverty level of students at West Seattle and Roxhill Elementaries, and how many hundreds of families in our community are close to homelessness, if not there now.
Licata pointed out that the last housing levy set aside $4 million for rental assistance – one of the things that was asked about, regarding preventing evictions. He said the council increased its support for food banks by $200,000 in each of the past two years. “There’s a combination of how you use public funds and what you do with the private sector …”
The Nickelsville discussion (see above) ensued. After that, a question focused on transportation issues for those in need – the bus tickets and other help?
Rasmussen wonders where the money will come from. “I encourage you to contact your county councilperson and legislators. … ” and then he offered to be the contact person. O’Brien noted he’d heard a “technical question” about how bus passes are delivered, and said, “we need to be really thoughtful about how we deliver (them).”
The issue of eviction prevention – and foreclosure-related evictions – resurfaced.
42,000 homes in the city are under water, noted Licata. He said he is working with specialists and people from other cities about “possibly using a tool every city has – eminent domain – to buy down the principals. Until you reduce the principals of the loan, you’re just getting deeper and deeper … ”
Rasmussen says it’s frustrating there’s not more help with that issue, particularly for people whose problems are linked to issues including mental health, domestic violence, addiction, and more. He told a story about someone who was booted from his home because of his sexual orientation, but got help, got education, and got on his feet.
Brian Callanan, the West Seattle-residing journalist/broadcaster from the Seattle Channel, a fixture at many OLG events, asked some of the questions in the later going, from slips of paper on which attendees had written them. That included one about the city purchasing unneeded buildings to house homeless people. Licata mentioned it’s been done, though not enough for that to be “the” homeless solution.
An audience member said that while he’s impressed with the answers he heard tonight, he’s less impressed with the council’s history of action or non-action. And he said he’s sorry that Nickelsville will be disbanded because of its sense of community.
Next from the audience, a longtime volunteer/donor who has helped at Nickelsville exhorted the councilmembers to look at the people in the room who have helped too: “I want to hear from you … how are you going to use US … as a point of service so that we can help those who are less fortunate to us?”
Licata’s reply: “Two ways – the (safe parking) program,” which currently has three churches with 10 spots and is now looking to have 10 churches with 50 spots by next year – “if you can get your community to agree to host them, we have a system set up” to make that happen. Second, he said, “I’ve been meeting a lot with the people from Nickelsville to figure out what the next step is – they’re in agreement they may not find a single spot to put them all in … they are willing to break into smaller communities if your church has land, or private owners who’d want to lease land to a church, legislation in my committee now is talking about 5,000 square feet … you have a network that we do not have; you have members who are compassionate and passionate, and you have physical facilities that might be able to be used to help with the transition for people who are in the encampment.”
Rasmussen reiterated that churches can host campers, and he suggested they work with churches in other communities to make sure they are providing services and help in their communities – “why should a family have to move across the county or across the state to find a place to live, shouldn’t they be able to find help in their own communities?”
O’Brien said, “Those of you who have been working with Nickelsville, I want to thank you for that work … you never know who that one person is who maks that one little connection that provides that hope to get that person into a stable living situation where they can support themselves … Yes, we need (institutional solutions), but at the end of the day, we need (volunteers) too.” He reiterated a request for hosting cars or offering land to host an encampment, or to get a private landowner to lease land to a church so that it could become church property and host an encampment. He said he believes there will be encampment(s), whether called Nickelsville or not, after September 1st.
WHAT’S NEXT: The individual organizations involved in the Westside Interfaith Network continue their work and periodic meetings – next time one is announced, we’ll get it in the calendar.
Regarding the “Nickelsville” issue: On June 25th, there’s a formal public hearing on Licata’s encampment-related ordinance, which seeks to make more sites around the city potentially usable as hosts. Here’s the official notice with details. On Monday, July 8th, as reported here last week, the full council will consider the ordinance created from the seven councilmembers’ direction last week to get “Nickelsville” residents housing and services so the camp can be closed by September 1st.