By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“These are our neighbors.”
One of the participants in Saturday’s West Seattle Chamber of Commerce-presented forum on homelessness used that simple statement in the hope of debunking various myths about people experiencing it.
The almost-two-hours event also addressed frequently asked questions, such as where the city’s homelessness-related spending is going.
The speakers were, in order, Sola Plumacher from the city’s Human Services Department, which oversees its homelessness-related spending and initiatives; Michael Maddux, a local activist/advocate (who is also a City Council staffer but made it clear he was participating as a private citizen); Paul Lambros, executive director of nonprofit housing provider Plymouth Housing; Annie Blackledge, executive director of The Mockingbird Society, which is focused on ending youth homelessness and advocating for foster children. The Seattle Police Department was planning to send a speaker but canceled at the last minute. Introducing the forum was Chamber CEO Lynn Dennis; emceeing it, Chamber government-affairs chair Rik Keller. We recorded it all:
If you weren’t there and don’t have time to watch, here’s how it went:
Plumacher started by noting that her department is about to change leadership, as director Catherine Lester is leaving after next month. She explained the department’s priorities, including six “priority action items” from the Pathways Home discussion – starting with “commitment to families living unsheltered.” She had a side note, that the city is now trying to rebrand “sanctioned encampments” as “villages.”
Job loss, housing challenges, and alcohol/drug abuse are the main factors contributing to homelessness, she said, before noting that “for every $100 rent increase” – according to the Urban Institute – “there’s a 15 percent rise in homelessness.”
“It’s not true that every single person who’s homeless is a drug addict,” Plumacher said, but outreach teams estimate 80 percent of the people they encounter have substance-use disorders. She also showed the One Night Count (now Count Us In) numbers, saying 14,281 people in the most-recent count were experiencing homelessness.
To reach “functional zero” homelessness by 2020, 3,212 households would need to be housed each quarter, Plumacher said. The current rate is about a quarter of that.
93 percent of the people they surveyed “would move inside if it was safe and affordable.” (
Note: We’re hoping to get a digital copy of her slide deck and will add it to the story when we do. MONDAY UPDATE: Here’s the full slide deck (PDF) shown by Plumacher. )
So what the city says it needs right now is “more and the right mix of housing options.” She also went through what the city is doing now, which includes the “six encampment villages” including Camp Second Chance on Myers Way in West Seattle, as well as the Navigation Team talking with people one-on-one who are “living in encampments throughout the city.” When there are sweeps, the city offers to store people’s belongings for up to 60 days. And she mentioned “cleaning the city” (though she didn’t specifically mention it, this would include operations such as the recent cleanup on Myers Way).
What they want to do next is “create a seamless system,” Plumacher said. And they need to improve results, according to this slide:
The most striking discrepancy between current and desired results – in 2016, less than 10 percent of people exited emergency shelter to permanent housing, and they want to increase that to “50 to 80 percent.”
Regarding funding, Plumacher said the numbers on her slide weren’t up to date but the percentage still applies – half of it goes to emergency services (see slide atop this story).
Questions for Plumacher: First, what caused the dramatic recent increase in homelessness, as shown on the next slide, as opposed to no real change ’08-’14?
Plumacher said “people were able to hold on for a long time … I think there are some other factors this slide doesn’t go into such as the abysmal failure of our mental-health system …” and youth who experience homelessness having a higher percentage of it recurring in adulthood.
Other cities have higher success rates, the questioner observed. Plumacher said she was just back from a trip to the East Coast and that Seattle does look at other cities for ideas and inspiration. Also, “homelessness is the finest sieve in the safety net … when all other systems fail, homelessness picks up where people fall through all those cracks.”
Next question was “about affordable housing … and what is considered affordable housing when a studio goes for” the kind of high rents they go for now? At that point organizers decided to hold off on further attendee questions until all the speakers were done.
That brought housing advocate Michael Maddux to the stage, seeking to directly refute some common contentions.
Maddux said he had personally experienced homelessness. Most of the people experiencing homelessness have it happen because job loss or something else causes them to become unable to stay in their home, he said, and everything spirals from there. Yes, many on the street are drug users … self-medication, like “every day of your life is the worst day of your life,” multiplication of the way a housed person might go home from an unpleasant day and have a drink or a joint.
Some residents in encampments are working fulltime but can’t find someplace affordable to live, Maddux noted. He also talked about people choosing options for survival if going into a shelter would mean they’d have to leave loved ones or pets.
He also noted that 70 percent of local homeless people say they’re from King County. “These are our neighbors, these aren’t people moving people here to get our services … when I hear people talk about ‘Freattle,’ that’s not a real thing … our services are incredibly maxed out,” housing, health care, etc., and difficult to obtain. People need to know that, he said. And, they need simple things, like “being able to access a restroom. … It’s a basic thing that we all have to do … Nobody wants feces on the sidewalk; the best way (to ensure that) is for it to go somewhere else,” like a restroom accessible to anyone.
Maddux also lauded nonprofits such as the West Seattle Helpline for helping people avoid becoming homeless. He urged “advocacy for meaningful solutions” … “it’s a lot easier to have screaming matches … but that doesn’t get us anywhere.” He acknowledged that “everybody wants to feel safe in their neighborhood, everybody deserves to feel safe in their communities,” and that goes for unhoused people as well as housed. Overall, he said, “all of these numbers you are going to hear about … are people. … Anybody can become homeless.” But “with the support necessary, if we are willing to provide that, anybody can come out of” homelessness/extreme poverty.
Next speaker, Annie Blackledge from The Mockingbird Society, explained that her organization’s mission is to “improve foster care and end youth homelessness.” They are in Seattle, Everett, Spokane, Tacoma, Yakima, and Olympia, each headed by two youth “with lived experience” who are employees of the organization. Fifty percent of youth exiting foster care become homeless within 18 months, she said, “and we’re allowing them to exit state systems of care into homelessness.”
A recent trend: “Older adolescents aren’t coming into foster care the way they used to” – some simply become homeless. “Think about when you leave foster care and have to rent your own apartment” – former foster children “really, really struggle” with no parents to help them, among other things they don’t have. Getting driver licenses – especially important in low-transit areas – needed special advocacy. And the list went on. She also spoke about education being a “key factor in success” for young people, and needing access to scholarships.
For families – there is a “crisis” with young people “sleeping in motels because thee is not a foster home for them … These are children. They are our children. There are not enough people stepping up wanting to do foster care.” She acknowledged that foster parents need support because the children they care for may have behavioral problems stemming from the difficulties in their lives – so her organization has set up “respite care” for those who need it and other kinds of support. “Nobody can do this work alone – we need each other.” At that point, she disclosed that she grew up in foster care, and had spent time homeless: “There are so many things that go into surviving the foster care system and surviving poverty.” She urged people to not look at homeless/low-income people as “lazy” – she said the work it takes to worry, to find services, is hard work.
She also talked about students experiencing homelessness in our state – no permanent home- 73 percent of them are “doubled up,” 14 percent live in shelters, 7 percent are unsheltered, 6 percent live in hotel/motel situations. The concept of any children “without a roof over their head … kind of feels like a crime to me,” she said. Statewide, 3.5% of all students are “identified as experiencing homelessness” – a relatively equal distribution across grade levels until a sharp rise at 12th grade.
Next up, Paul Lambros, executive director of Plymouth Housing Group, which provides permanent supportive housing, more than 1,000 people in 14 buildings, in and around downtown. He’s been with the organization for 25 years, and has been on the One Night Count “for many, many years.” In the past five years, they’ve noticed many more car campers. “I’ve never seen so many car campers in my life, people who just dropped out of our rental system, people who are working” but can’t afford housing, he said.
He addressed the common criticism that the city is spending more and more on homelessness with little to show for it – that’s because the federal government has dropped what it’s spending (as Plumacher had shown). He also had warm words for Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who was in attendance, saying that if you care about the issue of homelessness, she’s the best councilmember on the issue.
Plymouth works with “men and women who have experienced chronic homelessness,” he continued, about 2,000 people in King County:
*Average income $8,400/year (mostly via some kind of disability payments)
*87 percent disabled
*56 percent mentally ill
*49 percent seniors
*51 percent addicts
*More than 150 of the 2,000 are veterans
Many of those statuses overlap, Lambros noted.
“Services lead to stability,” one of his slides was headlined. That includes “intensive support for the most vulnerable residents during their first 12 months in housing.” Their front desks are 24/7, and they have individualized support and on-site nursing. And he further explained “Housing First.”
He also talked about the “Familiar Faces Program,” which works with the county to “provide people who cycle in and out of the jail system – and also experience mental health or substance-use challenges – with a path out of homelessness.” This program utilizes space at the Pacific Apartments.
Their program saves money – saves public dollars – and has a study to provide it – “in the 12 months before entering (a Plymouth building), 29 “high utilizers” of public services accrued nealy $2.4 million in public costs at the jail, hospital, sobering centers, and medical respite. In the 12 months after move-in, $585,000 in public costs.
Plymouth just opened its 14th and newest building on First Hill and has set aside 30 apartments in that building too – it’s near Harborview and they are partnering with the medical center to provide nursing care for those 30 residents as well as others in the building. He said his organization also has the Langdon & Anne Simons Senior Apartments, with 90+ seniors who have been homeless. Some of them, he said, had been homeless for more than 25 years before getting permanent housing.
They’re breaking ground soon on a new building at Rainier & King in the International District, with “105 permanent supportive housing studio apartments” and some commercial space. Another new project, a First Hill high-rise (up to 16 stories) site owned by Sound Transit – 300+ units working with Bellwether Housing, homeless senior units and “workforce housing.” Also on First Hill, at 12th and Spruce, they’ll be building 90 studio apartments for formerly homeless individuals.
According to Plymouth Housing’s most-recent annual report, almost half its annual revenue comes from “public grants.”
Q&A started with someone asking about animals in encampments. (We took this photo during the recent cleanup on the side of Myers Way where people are camping illegally:)
Plumacher said the city “knew this was going to be a challenge” so the Navigation Center – a city-funded shelter-and-more facility serving ~75 people – allows people to come in with “pets, partners, and possessions.” She said the Seattle Animal Shelter has had some pilot health-care programs, and also mentioned that the city-sanctioned encampments allow pets.
Aren’t developers required to provide afforable housing? asked someone. Lambros mentioned the forthcoming HALA Mandatory Housing Affordability upzoning proposal, and also the Multi-Family Tax Exemption program. (Here’s the 2017 report for the MFTE program, which gives participating owners/developers a 12-year break on paying taxes on the residential construction in their projects – not on the land itself or commercial space. The report includes a list of participating projects.)
Maddux said that MFTE requires setting aside some units for people making up to 80 percent of area median income – it’s not low-income housing. He mentioned several other programs, including the newly unveiled “head tax” proposal, with a spending plan that would allot 75 percent of the tax dollars to building affordable housing.
Lambros added, “The need’s great at every level.”
Also asked: How many people are transitioning out of this kind of housing and opening spaces for more people?
“For us,” Lambros said, “people are in permanent supportive housing for the long run.” Some of them can’t even get into nursing homes – but they did open a building for people to “graduate to” if they were not as much in need of services – 70 people, and that opened supportive-housing spots for people who needed more service. But overall, “there’s not enough of ANY time of housing right now,” he emphasized.
The Mockingbird Society person said everyone who’s been working with them is housed.
Plumacher said about a third of people are able to get into permanent supportive housing from emergency shelter. “It’s important to understand …the small amount of transitional housing we continue to have, and supportive housing … there are 12 units that become available on a monthly basis,” and the demand vastly outstrips the availability.
Maddux mentioned the stat that 25,000+ lower-income households are paying more than half their income for housing, and cited another stat: If the city could pay for housing to be built for everyone who needed it, that would be $5 billion to do it all at once.
Plumacher, in response to another question, talked about the authorized encampments and the current two-year limit. There are six encampments now (including C2C in West Seattle), a seventh is in the works (in North Seattle), two more are being pondered. Right now, the two-year limit still stands, she said (there’s been talk of changing that, as discussed at the most recent C2C Community Advisory Committee meeting). She said the “dispersion through the city has not been defined by the current administration … so there’s lots of consideration to be had about what this administration wants to see.” (We asked her for clarification after the event ended, and she confirmed that while there’s “talk” of changing the time-limit ordinance, it’s in a very early stage of discussion.)
Maddux said that two of the encampments – not including C2C – are on sites being looked at for permanent housing.
Another question: Is there anything specific being done regarding housing for youth experiencing homelessness? Maddux mentioned one on Capitol Hill and another in the U-District.
Last question, Rik Keller from the Chamber asked: What, as concerned citizens, can people do?
Plumacher: Take this message and share it with all your friends and family … volunteer with (an organization) or understand how to gather resources or items for (organizations). Also, “give an undesignated gift to any one of our nonprofit organizations.”
Blackledge: Speaking personally, not as Mockingbird’s head: “We have to talk about revenue in this state. … I think we need to re-evaluate our social contract with each other … People should not be sleeping in motel rooms with social workers. … Be willing to provide respite to a foster parent … there’s Treehouse, where you can donate things to their warehouse.” Mockingbird always appreciates volunteers, and accepts very little government money.
Lambros: Our state is almost at the bottom regarding mental-health funding – advocacy (to change that) is really important. Also: “Our current mayor and council members are really gung-ho about (the homelessness) issue,” so look for ways to support them.
Maddux: “The number one thing to remember is that we are talking about our neighbors, we are talking about people. … We are moving forward with providing revenue streams to provide services that we know work.” Regarding Seattle spending more, he repeated that the city spends more because the federal government and state goverment are spending less. He also said that this should be an issue in the upcoming local State Senate race (with 34th District Sen. Sharon Nelson not running for re-election). “What can you do in your own neighborhood? Make a contribution to an organization” that is helping with people who are homeless, or helping to prevent homelessness. Donate to WestSide Baby, West Seattle Food Bank, West Seattle Helpline, and be respectful of recipients – when you donate food, don’t donate expired food that you wouldn’t eat.
Blackledge: Our young people say people won’t look them in the eye … if you see someone on the street who is struggling, look them in the eye and say hello.
The forum was to wrap there – but one person said he had been waiting a while to ask something important:
He described himself as a retired teacher and a volunteer at Union Gospel Mission, and explained: “I have a new best friend, his name is Gary. He lives on Harbor Avenue in his van,” with his dog Princess. “He has no chemical dependency issues, he’s 57 years old, he lost his home through no fault of his own.” Gary wants to work – but needs to find training. “What would be your advice for helping find a job and housing?”
Plumacher suggested Recology – a heavy labor job, she warned – and UPS, both of whom she said are particularly interested in hiring people who are experiencing, or recently experienced, homelessness. Lambros said short-term work might be available via the Millionair Club in Belltown or at Fare Start, as well as day-labor work “cleaning the stadiums.”
The resource hotline 211 was mentioned, too.