Without shelter, people die

As climate change makes previously “once-in-a-lifetime” extreme weather commonplace, Seattle’s 2019 snowstorms have battered working-class people with longer, more dangerous commutes; missed hours; and rising childcare costs from school closures. But no group is hit harder than Seattle’s homeless population, who face a literal life-or-death situation and are eight times more likely to die of hypothermia in King County. Tragically, an unsheltered man in Seattle, Derek Johnson, was found dead Thursday morning due to exposure — because without shelter, people die.

Inequality is stark in Seattle. Our city has been the national leader in the number of construction cranes three years running and nearly one in 10 apartments sit vacant, while at the same time, Seattle’s homeless population is one of the highest per capita in the nation. The crisis gets worse every year. Between 2012 and 2018, homeless deaths more than doubled, disproportionately people of color. Seattle now has more unsheltered people than New York City, a city 12 times our size.

The crisis of affordable housing in Seattle, along with weak tenant rights laws, has helped lead to an epidemic of evictions, which often lead to homelessness. On average, one District 3 resident is evicted from their home every other day, and our neighborhoods of First Hill, Capitol Hill, and the Central District see some of the highest rates of eviction in the city. This crisis is entirely preventable: three of four people evicted reported that they could pay all or some portion of the rent owed if a reasonable payment plan was offered. At the same time, the total amount of back rent owed by everyone facing eviction in 2017 was a little under $1 million, less than Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos makes in a single day.

Over three years ago, former mayor Ed Murray declared a “state of emergency” over our homelessness crisis. That same year, ignoring calls from Councilmember Kshama Sawant and community activists, the City Council majority and Mayor Murray approved a budget allocating less than 1% of the city’s budget towards addressing the crisis, $10 million under what the Seattle Human Services Coalition recommended as a bare minimum to address the emergency. This type of approach from the political establishment has only continued, as we saw with the shameful repeal of the Amazon Tax last year.

The establishment’s complete failure to address our housing affordability and homelessness crisis has forced City employees and community providers to fill the gap with gravely insufficient resources. That’s why Mayor Durkan’s approach to selecting a new director for Seattle’s Human Services Department, which provides a vital social safety net in our city, is scandalous.

Community members and HSD workers have come forward to Councilmember Sawant’s office to express deep concerns about the Mayor trying to force through this appointment without even having conducted a search for the position, let alone one that was inclusive of the impacted communities, human service providers, and department staff. That’s why Councilmember Sawant is introducing a resolution which, if passed by the City Council, would return the nomination to the Mayor’s office and call for an open, transparent, and inclusive director search and nomination. Join Councilmember Sawant, community members, and Human Service Department workers at City Hall on Wednesday, February 20 at 6pm, and read her response to a letter from Mayor Durkan.

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