What are we talking about when we talk about emergency shelter?
Danny Westneat and the Uncompassionate Seattle Amendment Charter
Danny Westneat recently discussed debates about homelessness in Port Angeles, Washington and Seattle. In the column, he says that he has asked people living under bridges where they are from. But as someone who was homeless as a teenager in Port Angeles, and later in Seattle where I hoped to find a way off the streets and enroll in college, it does not matter where anyone is from when the housing crisis can be found everywhere. Suggesting that unhoused neighbors should only access resources in their hometown is akin to saying that Californians shouldn’t be allowed to buy homes in Seattle.
On June 24, Belltown United is hosting a panel discussion for Compassion Seattle’s Charter Amendment Measure 29, moderated by Danny Westneat. In a city that houses the company of the world’s wealthiest man who plans to move to Mars, the charter does not offer any suggestions for how to fund its mandate. Section 4 demands that the City must provide “emergency or permanent housing with services including access to behavioral health services and necessary staffing to serve people with the highest barriers.”
In addition to no suggestions on how to fund this, it is very concerning that the charter does not dictate what percentage of “units’’ will be emergency shelter beds. In a nod to Raymond Carver’s famous words, we must ask, what are we talking about when we talk about emergency shelter? When most people hear the word “emergency shelter,” I’m sure that it conjures images of a warm, safe bed. But the reality in many shelters is far from that. To illustrate why some unhoused neighbors might prefer to sleep on the sidewalk or under bridges, instead of an emergency shelter (which is usually a large open room where there is often no privacy and little safety), at 18, I was raped by another woman while I slept in a youth shelter. The next night, I chose to sleep on the streets again where it felt safer. The word “shelter” sounds nice, but YouthCare for example, does not have permanent beds for Seattle’s homeless teenagers. Each night, YouthCare’s lowest paid employees, many of whom are formerly homeless themselves, pull down mattresses to set up on the floor of the day program. I witnessed at least one employee fall and sustain a concussion when pulling down beds from the loft storage area.
Charter Amendment Measure 29 is careful not to mention the role of police in the mandate, nor how helpful it would be to use 50% of SPD’s budget to fund private housing units instead of paying police salaries over $200,000 a year. Imagine how many studio apartments unhoused neighbors could live in with half of just one Seattle police officer’s salary. Rent in Seattle is expensive, but $100,000 would still go a long way. Having been homeless on the streets of Port Angeles and Seattle, along with my little sister, much of the poverty that SPD is paid to police would disappear if unhoused neighbors had actual housing. Not emergency housing with waitlists and dangerous bunkmates, but actual studio apartments for actual humans who live here. Of course, the greater conversation we need to have is how the federal government should be responsible for a nationwide Housing First policy to address the housing crisis everywhere. But until then, I’ll be voting against Compassion Seattle’s charter, written by wealthy Seattle business owners who have never seen the inside of a homeless shelter or had to sleep on the concrete in the shadow of the Bezos Balls.