Category Archives: Advocacy

Why sky-rocketing rents are pushing those living at the margins into homelessness

By Janinne Brunyee

Increasing homelessness is an unintended consequence of Seattle’s economic boom. More and more people find themselves priced out of the rental market. This topic has been particularly on my mind recently as my step-daughter, who moved in with us a year ago when she relocated from Bellingham to start her first job in Seattle, has been looking for an affordable apartment. While she is fortunate enough to have a secure safety net, we have found her struggle to find an apartment she and a roommate could afford in a highly competitive rental market illuminating. Thankfully, due to luck and ingenuity, they have managed for find a place in West Seattle. But they are now at the mercy of their landlord. What if the landlord raises rent beyond their reach or sells the building in the next few years?

According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, growing rents are the overwhelming cause for the increase in homelessness since 2013. The 2017 “Count Us In” report revealed that of Seattle’s homeless population, 41 percent said they became homeless after being evicted or losing a job.

Photo: The Seattle Times

In July, The Seattle Times reported that from June 2015 to June 2016, rents in Seattle grew four times faster than the national average. And according to a recent Zillow report, the typical monthly rent in the Seattle metro area exceeded $2,000 for the first time this spring and is up 9.7 percent in the past year. Seattle’s rent was $300 more than the U.S. average in 2011; now, it’s $620 more.

Two years ago, city officials noted that it would take two wage earners, both working full-time at $15/hour, to rent the average one-bedroom apartment and be able to afford other basic living expenses. Today, those same workers need to each earn $19.84/hour to afford the same apartment.

Source: 2017 Count Us In Report

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s revised income limits for 2017 provides sobering news. A family of four making $72,000 or less in King and Snohomish County is now considered low income. Moreover, to qualify for Section 8 housing, residents must make 50 percent of the median income. In Snohomish and King counties, that means you would have to earn no more than $48,000 to get help with housing. In Pierce County, that number is $37,250.

FoxNews reports, however, that so many people earn less than $48,000 that the Snohomish and King County Housing Authorities take that number even lower. They target families with an income of 30 percent of the median income. That means the majority of Section 8 housing then goes to families bringing in $28,800 or less. And even then, they have a long wait list.

Rising Costs Across the Region

Many who cannot find affordable housing look to moving out of King County as a viable option. While some have made the move to Tacoma, this may not be the best solution either. Pierce County has the least number of affordable rental units in the state for really low-income people. For every 100 households earning up to 30 percent Area Median Income [AMI] there are only 50 housing units that they can afford.

According to the Tacoma/Pierce County Affordable Housing Consortium’s Affordable Housing Guidebook, a household, regardless of size, must earn $21.65 an hour, 40 hours every week of the year to afford a two-bedroom rental apartment in Pierce County without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing.

My step-daughter has the option of returning to our home if she loses her job or can no longer afford to pay the rent. More than 4,500 people in Seattle did not have this option. When faced with this situation, they had to pack their bags and move into their car or a tent.

Ending homelessness starts by deleting the term “service resistant”

By Robert Bowery, Director of Clinical Services, Compass Housing Alliance

There is a phrase that often comes up in conversations about homelessness: individuals who are “service resistant.” When I hear this, I shudder. Not only is this completely unfair, it reveals a lack of understanding of the real needs of homeless individuals. So as we aim to tackle this crisis, which has an ever expanding footprint in our region, we need to rethink how we do it.

We need to ask the question: Are we ending homelessness, or are we perpetuating it?

This is a tough question. So let’s start with some simple truths, like acknowledging that someone who is homeless is someone like us. This is someone who has relationships—a girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, wife, or husband. They may have a pet, or two, their four-legged friend and companion that they love. And they too have “stuff,” the dear possessions they are attached to and want to hold on to. And these are all barriers, effectively shutting the door to a homeless person who is seeking shelter.

Now, let’s take the next step, where our paths diverge, and in ways few of us can genuinely appreciate. For a homeless person, each morning brings a daunting struggle to survive. It’s a daily pursuit to simply meeting basic needs: a warm meal, a safe place to stay the night, health care, a shower and toilet. It’s also important to remember that one in three homeless individuals is dealing with mental illness in King County. More still are grappling with substance abuse and chronic health issues or PTSD. And sadly, more than one in 10 is a veteran. They experience harassment, violence, discrimination and alienation. This endless cycle of insecurity, abuse, and being re-traumatized make stability, housing, and employment increasingly challenging goals.

This is the context we need to remember when we hear the term “service resistant.” In no way does it reflect the reality of a homeless person. In many cases, the services we currently offer don’t come close to meeting existing needs. So, collectively, as a network of service providers to the homeless population, we need to rethink our approach and current partnerships if we want to truly address homelessness.

Removing Barriers to Shelter

Here’s the good news. A workable, successful model exists: the 24/7, enhanced shelter model. It gives individuals the opportunity to stay in one place while searching for a permanent solution, rather than returning to the streets each day and hoping for a bed somewhere that night.  Compass Housing Alliance will be adding 100 beds this summer at Seattle First Presbyterian Church. We will accept partners, pets and possessions. Our innovative, person-centric approach to Seattle’s homeless population combines safe shelter, complete wrap-around services and intensive case management. By removing barriers, connecting people to services and helping them navigate the gaps, providing trauma-inform care and moving toward a harm-reduction approach, we can revolutionize the shelter model, which clearly isn’t working. We can truly serve needs of the homeless population and we can—finally—eliminate “service resistant” from the homelessness conversation.

Neighbors helping neighbors home

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.

Counting the Cost: A personal experience of Count Us In

By Janinne Brunyee, Partner, Boost! Collective

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.

Boost! Collective is a story-driven marketing and communications firm working to discover, create and tell the powerful stories that drive deep connections between organizations and their audiences. We are proud to be working with Compass Housing Alliance to tell their stories.

Homelessness Count Shows System Improvements, Growing Needs

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.

Crowd of volunteers gather for Count Us In
Over 1,000 volunteers participated in Count Us In

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:

Local Residents

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.

Veterans

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.

For more details on these populations and survey findings, check out the full 2017 Count Us In Report.

What We’re Doing to Meet the Challenge

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.

Enhanced Shelter

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.

We are excited to open our pilot project, Compass Crossing, later this year.

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