City homelessness director George Scarola—who does not like being called a homelessness czar—showed up early for a forum at the Greenwood Senior Center Wednesday night and ended up chatting with me, a few folks who identified themselves as neighborhood residents, and Harley Lever, founder of the group Safe Seattle.
While we waited for folks from the Greenwood Community Council to set up the room, I asked Scarola about a protest that temporarily stymied city workers trying to clear out an encampment under the south end of the Ballard Bridge on Tuesday. Scarola said the incident taught the city that they may need to do things differently next time, possibly by bringing in more police. I asked whether the city had a contingency plan if protests like the one Tuesday became common. Scarola said the city hasn’t gotten to the point—they’re still rolling out new rules for clearing encampments—and asked me, rhetorically, what the demonstrators were protesting. “Are they protesting for the right of people to live in filthy, disgusting, dangerous conditions?” he asked, referring to the “Triangle” encampment the city plans to sweep next week. “Because no one should be allowed to live like that.”
During the forum, which I livetweeted and Storified for those who want the blow-by-blow, Scarola got a bit defensive when audience members suggested the city doesn’t have good data on who is homeless and why, and when Lever, who’s from Boston, suggested that his hometown had all but solved unsheltered homelessness . (Scarola reminded Lever that Boston’s winter, when the city does its annual homeless count, is almost unsurvivable without shelter, and pointed out that the city with the largest number of unsheltered homeless people is … Honolulu.)
Scarola also suggested, not for the first time, that the city might deviate somewhat from the recommendations laid out in Pathways Home, a set of recommendations based in large part on a report by Ohio consultant Barb Poppe and released last year. Pathways Home recommends directing new spending on homelessness toward rapid rehousing with short-term housing subsidies, rather than new shelters for those currently sleeping outside. “Barb Poppe would like us to spend less money on shelters and more money diverting people from becoming unsheltered,” Scarola said. “We don’t totally agree with every recommendation Barb Poppe made, but we agree with the thrust of them.”
In addition to the Poppe report, Pathways Home is based on a report by a firm called Focus Strategies, which says the city “should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County.” And yet, at a briefing on the results of a new survey of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle Wednesday, staff for the city’s Human Services Department suggested that the city’s goal was to find or build affordable housing options in the city itself, rather than requiring people to move far away from their support systems, service providers, communities, and jobs, often with no reliable transit to get them back into the city. It will be interesting to see how the city reconciles these seemingly contradictory impulses—to preserve diversity in Seattle and avoid exporting poverty to the suburbs, while also ensuring that people can afford to pay the full price of housing when their vouchers run out after three to six months.
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