34th District Democrats: Looking ahead to the elections, and looking into the heart of a regional emergency

January 17, 2016 5:58 pm
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 |   West Seattle news | West Seattle politics

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Most of what happened at the first 2016 meeting of our area’s largest political organization, the 34th District Democrats, involved two topics: This year’s elections, and the city/county-declared homelessness emergency.

First, the elections:

Marcee Stone-Vekich, starting her fourth year as chair, noted that U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott‘s decision not to run for re-election caught her by surprise. “And I’m hoping another fellow named McDermott may run for that seat” – referring to County Councilmember Joe – a statement that drew applause.

Joe McDermott is usually at the 34th DDs’ meetings but missed this one due to illness and as of this writing has not announced whether he’ll run or not; in November, he won re-election to the County Council, unopposed. Other candidates in other races were in attendance, though:

LT. GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: State Sen. Cyrus Habib told the group it was the first to hear about his “cap the co-pay” bill, “to limit the ability of insurance companies to keep jacking up the co-payments.”

He also vowed to fight for a constitutional budget that lives up to the McCleary public-education-funding mandate, as well as for making sure that the boards in the state reflect its diversity, and for voting rights, among other things. He said he’s sponsoring paid statewide sick leave, and appreciates it because of what his parents had to deal with when he lost his eyesight to illness as a child. He touted making a life journey “from Braille to Yale.” He’s a lawyer and professor at Seattle University when the legislature’s not in session.

SECRETARY OF STATE CANDIDATE: Newly declared candidate Tina Podlodowski, a former Seattle City Councilmember, said this was her first election event. “(Voter) turnout has gone down every year that Kim Wyman has been Secretary of State,” she noted, and suggested there are many things that can be done to change that. “I intend to modernize our voting system here in the state – every vote and every voice should count.”

JUDICIAL CANDIDATES: Four King County Superior Court candidates were there to campaign for the 34th Dems’ support, though primary/general endorsements won’t be made until later in the year:

*Eric Newman, a West Seattleite running for Superior Court Judge District 44.

*Johanna Bender, appointed to Superior Court from District Court two months ago and now running to keep the seat. “I’m not sure we’ve all been very good at telling you what Superior Court is” – 53 elected judges, 12 appointed commissioners, “and we handle everything.”

*John McHale, who said his key attribute is “experience,” as a former public defender and prosecutor, civil litigator, volunteer)

*Steve Rosen, who is running unopposed.

PARTY STRATEGY: Also speaking, the state Democratic Party’s Coordinated Campaign director Max Brown, identifying himself as a West Seattle resident, He said the state has 1.35 million people who are “good Democrats and regular voters.” But – that’s only 47, 48 percent of the vote. So “another 300,000, 400,000 people must turn out across the state to support our candidates.” They plan to try to reach those voters everywhere they can find them. And, in response to a question, he promised to make sure that local groups like the 34th DDs have access to information about local volunteers.

SCHOOL DISTRICT LEVIES: The February 9th election for Seattle Public Schools‘ Operations and BTA levies is approaching fast.

Longtime 34th DDs member Leslie Harris – making it clear she was speaking as a private citizen, not as a School Board member – asked the group for its support campaigns for the school levies as a private citizen “I’m askin’ for your money, for your vote, February 9th. … This district has never not endorsed a Seattle Public Schools levy. Let this not be the first time.” And it wasn’t – the group voted to back the levies. Ballots are due to be sent out by King County Elections on Wednesday.

Now, the featured panel: The region’s homelessness emergency, as declared by the city and county, particularly as it affects youth. Comprising the panel, two former City Council candidates and a writer:

YOUTH HOMELESSNESS PANEL: The three panelists:

*Mercedes Elizalde, former City Council District 5 candidate who now works for ex-opponent Councilmember Debora Juarez, said her family experienced homelessness when she was young.

*Hanna Brooks Olsen, who works for Civic Ventures and is a co-founding editor of the online publication Seattlish, said she also grew up in poverty. She said she works with members of the media to “help them talk about issues of poverty … one issue we see often in the city is that the way we talk about poverty and homelessness can be incredibly biased.”

*Michael Maddux, a former City Council District 4 candidate, said he had “come to the issue of poverty and homelessness because it’s very very close to me,” because he found himself without shelter when he came out years ago. He also worked at a Planned Parenthood youth-outreach center to connect youth with services, something that shaped his perspective, “to be sure we are lifting up all members of our community regardless of their socio-economic status.”

Elizalde reminded people that Mayor Ed Murray had recently joined in a declaration of an emergency over homelessness. The next one-night count is January 29th; the last one found 3,772 people sleeping outside. She talked about the reaction to encampments, and how the city responded only to community complaints in the past, while now the prioritization is over whether people are safe, fed, in need of services.

Regarding data that’s being collected, Elizalde said, more information is always good but it seems to be in “the wrong direction” – where the people lived before, what illnesses do they have, do they use substances, etc. and “services are given to people with the most need, which is a good thing … how that relates to young people, though, is that they don’t have all these problems, they just don’t have a place to stay. … They’re not falling to the bottom of the barrel, so they’re not making it to the top of the list.” She talked about people losing housing because they had no network to fall back on, or perhaps they had only seasonal work, and nowhere to go when the season ends. The emphasis has been on “poverty is the fault of the poor, and when we are only looking through that lens, we will fall short … What creates homelessness is a lack of housing.”

Maddux talked about the community meetings that have been held in other parts of the city, where people without housing are seen through a lens of other-ness, as “them.” To bust a persistent myth, he said 87 percent of the people who are here and experiencing homelessness are from King County. He also talked about the high percentage of LGBTQ people among homeless youth – 75 percent of whom are local as well, Olsen interjected. “Nobody is trucking (people) in here for services – they’re already here.” The group applauded.

About the complaints of human waste and trash, she noted, people create that wherever they are: “One of the things we suggest is public utilities just providing services to unsanctioned encampments, because they’re going to happen anyway.” Olsen continued, “You have people who need shelter tonight, people who also need shelter tomorrow night, people who might not need it now but need to know where to go if they do … (with teens) if you plant the seed before the emergency situation, it’s much easier (when it happens).” It’s important to offer the services that are needed, talking also to groups like LGBTQ alliances in high schools so they know where the shelters are – “one of the biggest barriers is the lack of access to services for teens.”

“Another big barrier is that shelter options are discriminatory,” she said, by gender, or by restrictions on whether your partner or your pet is allowed. “We can say we’re opening shelter beds … but (there are people who) don’t go because they don’t feel welcome there.”

Then there’s the barrier of drug testing, she continued. There is so much focus on community critics about that – “homelessness doesn’t beget crime, addiction tends to beget crime, so if you can work on the homelessness part of it .. a lot of times, getting people into housing helps with their addiction in a huge way.” So it’s important to talk about funding of shelters, what the community wants from the state of emergency declaration, etc. “You can provide beds, but if you have all these additional steps that people have to take to get in them, you are going to literally be leaving people in the cold.”

Elizalde says many say that substance abuse didn’t cause homelessness, homelessness caused substance abuse. And abuse can become a coping mechanism, for the trauma, depression, unpleasant conditions of experiencing homelessness … it can create mental-health issues rather than the mental-health issues creating homelessness. She talked about all the specifics of people’s situations, and about the difficulty of designating which parts of the population can or will be served — “we got so many applications when we opened up (a) building, even though they were homeless and had income, but they weren’t in one of those populations that we had decided would go first.” She talked about the tragedy of denying someone housing because they, say, have 100 dollars too much income per month. “We need to start trusting our housing providers and need to ask our government to stop putting so many restrictions on who can live where and who can build what.”

Olsen said that rapid re-housing needs to continue to be a focus – she told the story of a Real Change Vendor of the Year and her boyfriend, who is still sleeping outside despite having a voucher, “because she is still being discriminated against because she has a voucher.” Sh ementioned an income-discrimination bill that she said is to be introduced in Olympia tomorrow. “There is an astronomical number of apartments open on any given night,” she said. The market should enable renting to some of htem, because other tenants will pick it up.

Maddux said that there also should be some way around the huge sum required – first, last, security depositi, etc. — that’s a huge barrier to getting into housing too.

For people experiencing homelessness between 18 and 25 “it’s a different world,” he said. He mentioned a new type of shelter in Boston with a board including people who live in the shelter. Rather than rules, it’s “responsibilities of people who live in the shelter … ultimately,” He said there are so many things that can make a difference, a positive impact, but “we gotta pay for them somehow.” “Who here loves our tax system here in state of WA?” he asked. Nobody raised their hands. Maddux went on to decry regressive tax system and say that the capital-gains tax, high-value property transfer taxes, and others need to be a factor – ‘we still need more money period and we can’t do it on our own … encourage your friends and families across WA to let (their reps) know we need more funding options.”

Q/A touched on various issues including “banning the box” and background checks that can lead to denial of housing for people with a problem in their background. The safety of shelter options came up as well. And then new District 1 City Councilmember Lisa Herbold stood up to talk about the current round of encampment removals – “sweeps” – and whether they’re really succeeding in getting people access to services, and whether they are leading to situations in which the city is getting less money from the federal government than it should be receding.

Herbold said the City Council will be briefed on Monday morning about the sweeps and related concerns. The Q/A also led to Elizalde requesting that “people-centered language” be used in referring to homelessness – don’t call them “the homeless” or even “homeless people,” but rather, she suggested, “people experiencing homelessness – it’s something that happens to people, not something that defines them.”

Two more meeting notes:

LEGISLATIVE DAY: The group’s legislative action chair, Tamsen Spengler, talked about the upcoming date (February 15th) where people can meet with legislators in Olympia – “an opportunity to really tell our legislators what we want them to do.” She says they’ll be pushing again for things they evangelized last year. She talked about one person bringing an 11-year-old last year and getting pumped up beause of everything he learned and everyone he got to talk to. “Come to the capitol, feel that energy, it’s wonderful energy, there’s going to be tons of people there … don’t let the Republicans take these things away from us, let’s keep em.” Read more about it on the 34th DDs website.

SPEAKING OF YOUNG PEOPLE: Toward the meeting’s end, the district approved new PCOs – Precinct Committee Officers – who will be accountable for outreach in their precincts, among other things. One was Kate, who made her pitch with her daughter Paloma in a front pack:

The 34th District Democrats meet second Wednesdays at The Hall at Fauntleroy, 7 pm. Between meetings, find updates at 34dems.org.

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