By Christopher Ross, Compass Housing Alliance Board Member
About six months ago I agreed to sit on a neighborhood committee. This group of neighbors had come together to explore how we could welcome a new housing development project to the Columbia City neighborhood. This is not just any housing project, and this is not any normal committee. For what we are really doing is creating community around Compass Crossing, a low-income, steel-frame modular housing solution designed to bring together dignified housing and people-centered services to create thirteen new housing units at the corner of Angeline and 39th Streets in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood.
Homelessness is a growing challenge in our region and it continues to escalate. I’m honored that our neighborhood is going to play a small but important role in finding a workable solution. While construction for Compass Crossing will only be finalized in Fall of 2017, this group is engaged in an important conversation now. What does it mean to be a good neighbor?
Our all-volunteer council formed to help create a welcoming and supportive network for our new neighbors. So we found ourselves, on a warm May evening, sitting in the basement of the Columbia City Church of Hope, the location where the Compass Crossing community will be built. I know we are all thinking we would rather be outdoors enjoying the sunset, but instead we’re all sitting here discussing how to be authentic and welcoming to our new neighbors.
Neighbors Supporting Neighbors
It was a humble exercise as we revisited our initial list of actions and activities that we drew up months ago: neighborhood walking tours, gardening events, etc. It was a long list, and at the time, we thought it would all be appropriate. Now, it becomes clear to us that there is a fine line between welcoming neighbors and neighbors who want to do too much. It’s been an interesting learning process. Yet every time this volunteer team meets, we gain greater understanding of the nuances of being supportive and helpful and how to balance that with the need to be respectful and just let people normalize into their new living situation. It sometimes feels counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best thing to do is to support people to make their own decisions. As neighbors, the most important task ahead is somewhat simple: to be gracious and welcoming.
We are neighbors who are committed to helping our new neighbors find home.
Every time I take the 1st Avenue South exit from the West Seattle bridge, I come face-to-face with an ever-growing cluster of tents and assorted bits and pieces of broken bicycles, chairs, makeshift fire pits and cars. Each time I see people who are living there, trying to create some normalcy and community in an otherwise hopeless situation, I have the same reaction. I want to do something to help.
But it’s not that easy. It’s only in working with Compass Housing Alliance for a few months that I came to understand that you can’t solve a problem if you can’t get your arms around how big it is. So I decided to volunteer for this year’s Count Us In event to help count how many people were experiencing homelessness in King County at a single point of time.
It was a cold January morning. I recruited my partner and a friend to join me. When our alarms went off at 1 a.m., we were half asleep as we bundled into our coats, hats and gloves and headed to the Compass Center on Alaskan Way. We arrived before the appointed time of 2 a.m. yet we encountered crowds who had also joined the effort, assignment in hand and ready to start the count.
Many people had responded to the call for volunteers and I worried we might not be needed. But then someone called out “Three volunteers for South Lake Union” and I raised my hand. We were in business. We’d been teamed up with Ryan, an experienced volunteer who is also a project manager at Downtown Emergency Service Center. Ryan walked us through the form we’d fill out as we counted people and we divvied our coverage area, two groups, two people each.
Once in South Lake Union, we were immediately struck by the quiet in the streets. We wondered if we would find any people at all. Then Ryan and noticed a group of tents on a small fenced off piece of land right up against I-5. There, at 2:20 in the morning, a man was sweeping the area outside his tent with a small broom. The traffic sped past behind them, but the people living in this small community of five tents were trying to create a clean space, a dignified place to live. It was a scene that touched me deeply and a sharp reminder of our shared humanity.
Among the largely empty streets of South Lake Union we did find 21 people without shelter. But, all four of us agreed that was 21 too many.
Big Picture Numbers, Real Lives
All told, the count gives us a clear eyed view into a bigger, and very saddening story. We saw just 21 of the 5,485 unsheltered people in King County on January 27, 2017. Still there were 3,491 more in emergency shelters and 2,667 in transitional housing. The numbers provide an urgent reminder that we need to dramatically scale housing production if there is any chance of addressing this crisis in a meaningful way.
It’s also important to remember that the numbers represent real people. Each person counted is someone’s son or daughter, someone’s mother or father, someone’s friend.
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The numbers are daunting. The January 27th count found 11,643 people experiencing homelessness in King County. Around 47% were considered unsheltered, living in vehicles, tents, abandoned buildings, or on the street.
Despite this, the report from All Home contains good news. Over 7,500 households moved from homelessness into permanent housing in 2016. This represents a 50% increase from 2013. Housing organizations created hundreds of new units of permanent affordable housing over the past year, along with hundreds of new shelter beds. Beyond the physical spaces, Seattle and King County increased access to services to help people move from homelessness to housing. It’s taking less time for people to move from homelessness to housing, and fewer are returning to homelessness.
With all this progress, why are so many people still experiencing homelessness in King County?
Housing by the Numbers
Headlines tell us Seattle is the fastest growing big city in the nation, continuing to set new growth records. Rents continue to rise during this rapid growth. According to the report, rents have risen 57% over the past six years, so that someone paying $800 per month in 2011 now has to pay $1,256 for the same home. Only 29 units of affordable housing are available for every 100 low-income residents.
Who Homelessness Impacts
The new study breaks through many of the myths surrounding homelessness in our area. It also confirms many points that we know from our work. Homelessness disproportionately affects people of color due to structural disparities in housing. Many people experiencing homelessness struggle with other significant barriers, such as lack of access to mental health services. Here are a few call-outs from the survey results:
Over 90% of our homeless neighbors were living in Washington State when they became homeless, with 77% already in King County. More than half of those surveyed lost their housing due to economic challenges from job loss, eviction, or divorce or family dissolution. Nearly a third have jobs but aren’t able to meet housing costs.
Families with Children
Over 900 families with children are experiencing homelessness. Nearly a quarter of our homeless individuals belong to these families. These numbers are sobering, but we are making progress. Efforts by King County, the City of Seattle, All Home, and partner organizations such as Compass Housing Alliance to engage and help homeless families are getting results. While we still need to move children and families into permanent affordable housing, 97% were sheltered on the night of the count.
The survey identified 11% of individuals experiencing homelessness as vets. Veterans reported physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress at much higher rates than non-veterans in the survey.
Compass Housing Alliance works to meet the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity. Our comprehensive services and case-management help set people on the path to stability. Due to the growing needs, we are expanding in several areas:
Permanent Affordable Housing
We opened Ronald Commons in Shoreline a few months ago with our partners at Hopelink and Ronald United Methodist Church to provide housing to families, veterans, and low-income individuals. Hopelink operates an onsite Integrated Service Center including a food bank, family services, and financial education.
We are currently in the design phase for Compass Broadview, another mixed-use development in the Broadview/Greenwood neighborhood.
When we open Compass at First Presbyterian this summer, we’re not only adding 100 beds to the shelter system, we’re applying our proven, person-centric approach to shelter and support.
Our low-barrier model allows people to stay with their partners and pets as well as store important belongings. On-site support services and case-management connect individuals with the resources they need to find stability.
A grant from the City of Seattle and space provided by Seattle First Presbyterian Church make this shelter possible.
Responsive Housing Solutions
In order to provide more housing at a lower cost and in a shorter amount of time, we need innovative solutions. Steel-frame modular housing allows us to move people into housing sooner. Additionally, we can house people at a lower cost and with lower environmental impact.
Our region faces enormous challenges. In working together and building partnerships, we can turn the tide on housing and homelessness in our area. We are committed to continuing the vital work of building a world where everyone lives in a safe, caring community.
Interested in following up on this story? For media inquiries, contact: Jacqueline Koch | email | 206.687.8546
In the early morning hours of Friday, January 27th, volunteers flooded the Compass Center and spread out across Seattle and King County to count people sleeping in cars, tents, and in the open.
All Home coordinated the effort with over 1,000 volunteers working in small teams of 3 or 4, led by paid team guides who are currently or formerly homeless.
Unlike with counts done in previous years, the final numbers will be released in spring rather than immediately. That’s due to changes in methodology to incorporate data from area shelters and transitional housing to give a more complete picture of homelessness throughout King County.
Thanks to everyone who joined us, All Home, community partners, and Mayor Ed Murray for your help and support. We look forward to learning the results of the count in the coming months as we continue to work on solutions to homelessness in our community.