Homelessness Authority has vision for downtown Seattle recovery – but asks for $ 27 million first

The Regional Homelessness Authority has set its sights on downtown Seattle in the first major political and financial proposal since its CEO began working.

General Manager Marc Dones is asking for $ 27 million for new facilities and outreach services in an effort to solve chronic homelessness. The first deployment will take place in what is arguably Seattle’s most difficult neighborhood to dig – the urban core. The idea appeals to business groups and politicians calling for a solution to an increase in visible homelessness in the city center, but it has also raised suspicion about why this area is a priority.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, the Bernier McCaw Foundation, the Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, the Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over the content of Project Homeless.

If the proposal is funded and goes well, it could be proof that the new head of the Regional Homelessness Authority can tackle the homelessness problem across the county.

“We have to choose a place and we have to have an impact,” Dones said. “You can’t do everything at the same time and hope to do it well. “

Before the pandemic, the city center accounted for more than half of the city’s jobs and tax revenue. As the pandemic spreads, it has been dubbed a “ghost town,” where 163 street businesses have been closed in less than a year. For a while, it seemed that the majority of people staying downtown were those living on its streets or shelters, as well as people from shelters, clinics and day centers helping them. One study documented an increase of 100 tents downtown as shelters shrank due to overcrowding.

There are around 800 homeless people in the city center, according to the authority, most sleeping in alleys or sidewalk tents and struggling with a combination of mental health issues and drug addiction.

As the downtown area returns to normal, powerful business players such as the Downtown Seattle Association lobbied to make what they call the “takeover” a central issue in the November local election.

“We have by default, in many ways, turned the sidewalks and streets of downtown into a mental health facility without any treatment,” said Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, who is excited about the plan. by Dones. “This reverberates daily in businesses on the ground floor. “

Nearly $ 20 million of Dones’ proposal would fund a 150-bed, clinically-staffed, “high-acuity” facility that would serve those often seen wandering the distressed downtown area, struggling with significant challenges. psychiatric problems made worse by the use of drugs such as methamphetamine.

“They are often absolutely alone, as their behaviors are sometimes too extreme to even be owned by a camp community,” Dones said. “We cannot continue to operate a system that is not providing anything to people in this situation. “

Dones estimates that there are more than 100 people in this situation downtown.

The rest will be prioritized for rent vouchers and social housing with support services which would open next year. About $ 7 million of Dones’ request would go towards creating a new ‘peer navigation’ system, where professionals who have experienced homelessness guide people not only off the streets but through the labyrinthine housing system. towards a more permanent focus.

Seattle City Council member Andrew Lewis, who represents downtown, said the city’s waterfront investments as well as tourism could “really lift the city out of the pandemic malaise.” It would probably help, he said.

Lewis said he was confident Seattle City Council and King County would figure out how to pay for the proposed investments together, noting that King County government offices also stretched downtown, between the town hall and the offices of the Regional Homelessness Authority. County and court workers have for months pressured city and county leaders to improve their safety when they return to work.

Many of the city’s shelters are concentrated in the city center, and outreach workers have reported that when people are moved from settlements in other parts of the city, they migrate to the city center, Lewis said.

For this and other reasons, Dones does not want to build the intensive care facility or a majority of new downtown housing units.

“In the same way that we tell the wider region that there is a concentration in Seattle and that we have to balance the new infrastructure, we say to the wider city that there is a concentration in the center. city ​​and we need to balance where we put new infrastructure. ”says Dones.

Prioritizing an area with such deep pockets could attract sidelong glances from critics of the influence of big business in the homelessness strategy. City council president and mayoral candidate Lorena González has insisted throughout her campaign that economic stimulus efforts have focused too much on inner-city businesses that have lobbied against corporate taxes that she and her colleagues on the board tried to raise.

Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness, declined to comment on the focus on downtown, but said council during budget season should prioritize better payment for shelter workers . Long-standing low pay and turnover issues in homeless nonprofits have been exacerbated this year by a labor shortage, putting shelters in a position where they often lose workers as well. quickly that they replace them, which makes it difficult to open new facilities.

Adjusting wages “must be a key priority for anyone who wants to maintain and add services,” Eisinger said.

Zaneta Reid, a community activist who has been homeless and sits on the board overseeing the Regional Homelessness Authority, supports Dones’ budget proposals but wonders if she is focusing on the downtown area first. The last count before the pandemic estimated there were more than 4,000 homeless people with severe mental illness across the county.

“We have high acuity needs everywhere, in other parts of the county as well,” said Reid, who listened to Dones present the plan on Thursday. “I mean, it’s bad in town, but maybe [this move] it’s because there are so many people making so much money out there.

Dones believes that focusing on the whole county and its needs at the same time would be a losing strategy. Dones’ long-term plan to rapidly but drastically reduce visible homelessness includes raising $ 1 billion from the private sector to purchase bridging housing, where thousands of people can exit the streets as they recover and look for better accommodation or wait for it to be built.

While this first step may win buy-in from big interests, Dones sees this move as “an alignment of a whole bunch of interests, instead of giving way to one interest or another.”

“I think the logic here isn’t how to appease all the companies, although we certainly want to support them,” Dones said. “That said, ‘This is where people go, and so this is where we support people. “