If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: Seattle’s proposed smoking ban in public parks is misguided.

I love parks. I intensely dislike cigarette smoke and litter.  I spent more than ten years working at the Public Health Department of Seattle & King County. Why would I not be delighted to see Seattle consider a universal ban on smoking in public parks?

Simply because the longer I work for the Coalition on Homelessness, the more allergic I become to public policies that create problems rather than resolve them.  The proposed ban on smoking in public parks in Seattle may not be intended to create another tool for law enforcement and parks department staff to use in urging people who are considered undesirable out of public spaces, but that will surely be the impact.

This ban is in line with a growing (and concerning) theme of public space use. Camping in a public park or under a bridge or roadway is illegal. Sleeping on a Metro bus is against the Code of Conduct. And yet, thousands of people resort to both of these life-sustaining activities every night in our community, and across Washington and the United States.

As Anatole France famously wrote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.”

These nuns (below) would likely not be threatened with a fine or trespassed from the park. Spokespersons for the Seattle Parks and the Seattle Police have said that they do not intend to put significant resources into enforcing the proposed ban — and acknowledge that they have “relied on verbal requests and volunteer compliance” to enforce the current 25′ rule.

Maybe they could pass this ban and it would just be another rule that barely changes the way in which most people use our public parks.

But these kinds of laws can and are often used to target people who are homeless or poor. Current rules require a reasonable 25′ between a smoker and another person enjoying the park. That seems to work fine. The Parks Commission wants community feedback:

Smoking nuns.
Smoking nuns.

The Board of Park Commissioners will host a special public hearing on Thursday, April 16, to take comments on a proposed parks-wide smoking ban.  The Board of Park Commissioners public hearing will be held at 6:30 p.m. in the Kenneth R. Bounds Board Room at Seattle Parks and Recreation Headquarters, 100 Dexter Ave. N.

So, what can you do?

  • Answer the Seattle Parks Survey: Yes or no, as a person who spends time in Seattle’s parks, do you support a complete ban on smoking in parks?
  • Submit your written comments about the proposed universal ban in public parks before May 7 to Rachel.acosta@seattle.gov. Written comments carry equal weight to oral comments.  You can also mail comments to: Seattle Parks & Recreation, Attn: Rachael Acosta, 100 Dexter AV N Seattle, WA 98109
  • Sign Real Change’s petition to Mayor Ed Murray, Seattle City Councilmember Jean Godden, Board of Parks Commissioner Rachel Acosta, and Acting Parks Superintendent Christopher Williams
  • We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please drop us a note (speakup {at} homelessinfo.org) or share an observation on our Facebook page.

The following are some of the letters/statements submitted to the Board of Park Commissioners urging them to reject the proposed smoking ban:

  • ACLU letter to Board of Park Commissioners
  • Seattle Human Rights Commission letter to Board of Park Commissioners
  • Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness letter to Board of Park Commissioners
  • IAC Statement on Seattle Parks Proposed Smoking Ban:  The IAC is concerned about the potential disproportionate impact of the proposed ban of smoking in Seattle Parks on people experiencing homelessness. The cumulative effect of smoking bans indoors and in public spaces leaves people experiencing homelessness with no place to legally smoke.

Plus, some more information:

Nancy Amidei’s Food Stamp Diary, Week 2: “This week’s bread is cheaper, but less filling.”

Greg Kauffman, who writes for The Nation, just published a scathing article on Bill Moyers’ website entitled “Why Is a Senate Democrat Agreeing to Another $8 Billion in Food Stamp Cuts?”  Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow (D) chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, and is a leading negotiator on the Farm  Bill (the huge piece of legislation that determines farm subsidies as well as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance  Program (SNAP), aka Food Stamps).  Stabenow is reportedly poised to agree to billions more in cuts. Kauffman describes the political landscape, in which Senate Democrats, as well as conservative House Republicans, are proposing devastating cuts to this basic support:

Despite the fact that the Institute of Medicine demonstrated the inadequacy of the SNAP benefit allotment and that a child’s access to food stamps has a positive impact on adult outcomes, the program was just cut by $5 billion on November 1. The average benefit dropped from $1.50 to $1.40 per meal. The Senate Agriculture Committee’s previous proposal to cut yet another $4 billion from SNAP would have led to 500,000 losing $90 per month in benefits, the equivalent of one week’s worth of meals.

“That was the first time in history that a Democratic-controlled Senate had even proposed cutting the SNAP program,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “The willingness of some Senate Democrats to double new cuts to the program…is unthinkable.” {emphasis added}

Food Stamps were never designed to meet all of a person’s or family’s nutritional needs. However, as we have seen federal and state cuts to programs benefiting people who are elderly, disabled, children, unemployed, or underemployed, Food Stamps are a significant part of a family’s food budget. It is hard to imagine a more worthwhile program, or one that is more targeted to people who are clearly poor and hungry in our nation.

There are currently 47 million Americans who turn to food stamps to help make ends meet. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly 72 percent are in families with children and one-quarter of SNAP participants are in households with seniors or people with disabilities. Further, 91 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes below the poverty line and 55 percent to households below half of the poverty line (about $9,500 annually for a family of three).

In other words, Food Stamps not only help poor and vulnerable people – they help our neighbors who are extremely poor and vulnerable. SNAP helps people put food on the table, and their modest purchases in turn bring millions of dollars of food purchases into local economies across the United States.  Deeper cuts to Food Stamps will produce more hungry and malnourished children and seniors, with devastating near- and long-term effects on the health of the American people.

Our friend and long-time homelessness and anti-hunger advocate, Nancy Amidei sent us the latest installment of her diary about eating on $4.20 a day, what the average person receiving Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Food Stamps now receives.  She is urging Washington’s Congresswoman Suzan Del Bene, who is a member of the conference committee, to join her.  Please join Nancy in letting Rep. Del Bene know that we are counting on her to protect SNAP.  You may call Rep. Del Bene’s local Bothell office staff at (425) 485-0085, or send an e-mail via her website.

WEEK TWO – Post-Thanksgiving.  I admit:  I cheated.  I took a “Thanksgiving break” from eating on a “food stamp diet.” So, as my second week on $4.20/day begins, that means I also start  out abundantly well-fed.  All last week I was conscious of how much my family had of everything. It wasn’t just the heaping plates of meat and vegetables during meals, there were all sorts of nuts and cheeses before meals, and afterward — we’d have dessert!

Day One: Went shopping today, calculator in hand, to figure per-meal-costs of every item. One result:  shopping took a LOT longer.  I bought what I hope is a week’s worth of food for $29.68.  And that was only possible because I had some coupons from my daily newspaper. Even so, I could only afford two vegetables:  carrots, and potatoes. (The green ones are all too pricey.)  Also missing:  fruit, something sweet.

Day Two:  At a mid-morning meeting, a colleague bought me coffee – full-strength!  YEA. But this week’s bread is cheaper, and already I’ve learned:  it’s also less-filling. V-8 was on sale so it’s my lunch-time vegetable this week (at half the recommended portion).  Dinner will be the same as last night.  But I know I’m lucky.  If I didn’t have a fridge or was living in my car, making it on food stamps would be impossible.

Day Three: I ran into a woman who’d read about what I was doing.  She said after getting groceries for her family, she checked the food stamp amount for a family of their size, and — despite being careful — found she’d just spent nearly three times that.  Meanwhile, by mid-morning, my stomach was growling.  But, I found a couple of apples in the back of the fridge… had it in small amounts (to stretch it out). Very exciting. Dinner – same as last two nights.  Plus, I miss chocolate.

Day Four:  Had a lunch-time meeting at a restaurant. With tips and tax, lunch equaled nearly 5 days’ allotment. Even though I brought half of my lunch home (to stretch to two meals), and eating out can be avoided, not all high costs can be.  What if I had diabetes? or other special diet needs?  or was being treated for cancer?

Day Five: Confession:  last night I found, and ate, some chocolate.  Even so, when I weighed in this a.m., I’d lost another 1.5 pounds.  And, I notice that my lower-cost breakfast cereal leaves me hungry by mid-morning.  Very grateful I don’t have a waitress or maid’s job involving lots of moving/hauling/energy. Today’s menus are like all other days this week. Still eating the chicken cooked on Day One; it’s a bit old, but it’s dinner… and appreciated.

It’s time to increase shelter capacity. King County has a good place to start: inside its own Administration Building.

Pass by the King County Administration Building at 4th Avenue at James Street in Seattle on an evening between November and March, and you’ll see a long line of about 50 people. They are waiting to get inside the men’s winter shelter that has, for many years, been hosted inside the building, thanks to funding from King County. The shelter has functioned on the loading dock of the building, in the lobby, and in other space, depending on the arrangements made between the building’s Facilities Management and the shelter provider, currently the Salvation Army. (The history of how this shelter came to be is a good story for another time.)

This is a pretty minimalist shelter: no beds, just mats on the floor. There’s access to a bathroom, but no showers. Dinner is not served, and until last year not only did the shelter not open its doors until 9.00 p.m., but men were specifically instructed not to line up before then. (Given that shelter is first come, first served, and that people who spent the night there previously have priority to sleep there the next night, this instruction is impossible to fathom, unless you accept the unspoken logic behind it: homeless people should not be visibly homeless. They should materialize 5 minutes before the shelter doors open, and dematerialize 5 minutes after they exit the building, at 6.00 a.m.)

Thanks to modest additional investments from Seattle and King County, and reasonable conversations with stakeholders, including the Coalition, last winter this shelter was expanded to double its capacity, serving 100 men each night. This expanded capacity lasted not only through the winter, but through the spring, and into the first two weeks of June. This unprecedented extension of Winter shelter revealed a simple truth: when decent indoor shelter is offered consistently, people want and need and use it — even when the weather improves. The additional 50 spaces were essentially full through May, the numbers dropping only when it was clear that the shelter would be closing, and people evidently determined that they would, once again, have to fend for themselves overnight as best they could.

Here is the letter I sent on behalf of the Coalition to King County Executive Dow Constantine and the Members of the King County Council, asking them to repeat the successful trial run of last winter and spring.

27 November 2013

King County Executive Dow Constantine
Chinook Building
401 5th Ave. Suite 800
Seattle, WA 98104

Dear Executive Constantine:

I am writing to ask you to double the capacity of the winter shelter in the King County Administration building to 100 people as quickly as possible. I write not only on behalf of the Coalition’s member organizations, and the thousands of King County residents they support with food, shelter, services, and housing each day and night, but on behalf of the nearly three thousand people whom you and I know will be sleeping outside tonight. The bitterly cold weather this past week is a reminder that shelter is, quite simply, a matter of life and death.

As you noted at the last Governing Board meeting of the Committee to End Homelessness, even one person sleeping outside is too many. While severe weather and winter survival shelters have recently opened in several other parts of King County, I understand that the winter men’s shelter in the King County Administration Building has yet to increase to its maximum service capacity.

This expansion can be accomplished quickly, and for a relatively modest amount of money. Last year at this time, thanks to your support, and special additional investment from the City of Seattle, 100 men slept safely each night in the Administration Building shelter. This compassionate and efficient increase in capacity lasted for seven months. From November 15 through June 15 the original space for 50 men was full every night. The second shelter space remained at capacity as winter turned into a cold spring. Contrary to the shelter provider’s expectations, the second shelter space provided an average of 40 men dignified nightly respite even in May. There is no question about the need and desire for this additional shelter.

Our community’s commitment to ending homelessness should and must include responding to people’s emergency needs for safety, shelter, and connection, as well as the creation of stable, accessible, and affordable housing. We have come too far in the last eight years to accept anything less than an increased and energetic commitment to our common goals. As we prepare for the January 24, 2014 One Night Count, I hope that you will take swift action to ensure that 50 more people are sleeping inside on that night, rather than on the streets.

The Coalition is deeply grateful for your work and for the King County Council’s work to ensure that the budget passed this year includes support for shelter and services for homeless youth and young adults. I urge you to work with King County Council to secure the necessary resources that will allow building staff and the Salvation Army to rapidly enact the same life-saving shelter expansion as last winter.

As always, the Coalition on Homelessness welcomes close collaboration with our partners in local government in working to end homelessness for our King County neighbors today, tonight, and tomorrow.


Alison Eisinger
Executive Director

cc: King County Council Chair Larry Gossett
King County Council Vice Chair Jane Hague
King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski
King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn
King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert
King County Councilmember Joe McDermott
King County Councilmember Julia Patterson
King County Councilmember Larry Phillips
King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer

Dan Brettler, Co-Chair, Governing Board, Committee to End Homelessness in King County
Gretchen Bruce, Committee to End Homelessness in King County
Greg Ferland, King County Community Services Division
Janice Hougen, King County Community Services Division
Mark Putnam, Building Changes
Adrienne Quinn, King County Community Services Division

Diary of an outraged advocate: Nancy Amidei sets herself (and Congresswoman DelBene) a challenge

Nancy Amidei partners with the Coalition regularly to teach “Homelessness Advocacy 101” workshops, where her infectious enthusiasm and stories of how advocacy works never fail to engage participants. I call her a Cheerleader for Democracy.

Nancy Amidei has been an anti-hunger and homelessness advocate, a teacher, and a champion of people participating in democracy for more than forty years.

She is director of the Civic Engagement Project, and retired a few years ago from the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, where I met her in 1993. I use the word retired with bemusement: Nancy’s schedule of workshops, guest lectures, meetings, and community events has slowed, but only in comparison to what it was a few years ago.  I am not sure she has ever declined to meet  with an interested student, or told a small group of concerned or caring people that she wouldn’t come speak for free.

Nancy and I often meet for a walk on the weekends, catching up on work and politics and sometimes tackling the Sunday crossword puzzle.  We spent the Sunday before the election talking about the $5 billion in cuts to food benefits that took effect on November 1st, and the terrible political state that leaves the Democrats proposing additional deep cuts to SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), just not as deep as the Republicans are proposing. Starting this month, 47 million people  in the United States will have less help to shop at local grocery stores and put food on their families’ tables. The cuts being debated now as part of the Farm Bill will be even more harsh, and last for ten years.

Typically, as Nancy turned this situation over in her head, she thought about what the advocacy opportunity might be. She suggested to national anti-hunger organizations that they call on all members of Congress who are making decisions about the SNAP program to eat on the same budget they were recommending for hungry Americans. By the next time Nancy and I talked, she had phoned local Congresswoman Suzan DelBene to ask her to do just this. As you’ll read, she is fair-minded enough to do the same.
Here is Nancy’s diary of her first week:

On November 17, 2013 I started trying to feed myself on the average food stamp benefit for an adult in Washington state:  $4.20 per person per day,  or $1.40 per meal.
I am doing this because 41 members of the U.S. Congress are meeting now in Conference Committee to decide the future of SNAP (aka Food Stamp) benefits.  One of those 41 is Representative Suzan DelBene, of Washington state.  Since food stamps were already cut on November 1 for everyone, it seems especially harsh that the Conference Committee members are debating whether to cut the program by  an additional $4 billion or $40 billion over the next 10 years.

I think it is reasonable to ask the members to feed themselves on $4.20 a day for the duration of their deliberations on the Farm Bill.  And, if I am asking them to do so, I am going to do it myself.  Despite having a long history with the Food Stamp Program, going back to the late 1960’s when I was a staff member at the (now defunct) U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, I’ve never personally taken the “food stamp challenge.”

Day 1: I know I start this challenge with many advantages. I have a car, so I don’t have to depend on a (higher cost) corner store for food.  I grow a few vegetables in my yard, and have a neighbor who gives me apples from her tree.  I subscribe to a newspaper, so I get lots of cost-saving coupons.  But right from the start I realize that just figuring out what I am spending per meal is a challenge.
Day 2: For the second day I’m having a lunch of half-a-bagel, plus 1 oz (sliced) of cheese, plus half a glass of V-8. I also had a few dried apricots that were in my cupboard. Without the “free” apricots, that’s a bit over $1.  Dinner is 2.5 oz of “manager’s special” (aka old) meat, some rice, and swiss chard from my garden.  Dessert:  half a large cookie.
Day 3: I realize I need to calculate the cost of my morning home-brewed coffee.  I don’t buy fancy coffee, but even so it comes to a whopping 40 cents: that won’t work. I’m now using the same amount of water, for half the coffee grounds.  By 10:40 a.m. my stomach is growling, and I am missing my usual caffeine hit.  Dinner:  same as last night.
Day 4: Probably should have thought of this before, but today I was grateful I wasn’t a growing teen, person with a high-energy job, or anybody bigger and younger than me. That realization hit me as I chatted with a grad student/veteran I know, who is about 6’2″ (I’m 5’5″, and a lot older).
Day 5: I haven’t mentioned this, but pretty much every day I’ve “cheated” a bit:  nibbling some chocolate-covered raisins that were in my cupboard, stretching my bought food with the last of my garden’s swiss chard, a piece of gingerbread from a friend, and  home-made applesauce that I found in my fridge (made earlier from my neighbor’s apples).  If I were in a low-paying job, living in an urban apartment, those things probably wouldn’t be possible.  Even so, this morning I had to “water” the milk in my breakfast cereal.  I am running out and can’t afford more milk.
Day 6: Today I head out for the holidays with various relatives.  I’ll still be at $1.40/meal for breakfast and lunch, but will be well-fed at dinner.  And, I’m going “off” the challenge for Thanksgiving week – a luxury low-income food stamp users don’t have. Over 90% of the people who use food stamps are families with children, or people who are elderly and/or with a disability. Virtually all of them who can work are doing so, or trying to find work in a time of high unemployment. I don’t know how they do it, but I’ll be trying again starting next week.
~ Nancy
P.S. For the record:  close friends have mentioned that I seem “crabbier” and I know that I have less energy — and it’s only been six days.

As you gather family and friends together this Thanksgiving, take a few moments to let Rep. DelBene know what you think about cutting food stamps. Representative Suzan DelBene‘s 1st district includes Kirkland, Bothell, Redmond, and Woodinville.  You can call her local Bothell office at (425) 485-0085 or use the form on her website to send her an e-mail. She tweets @RepDelBene, and her latest tweet is from the Sky Valley Food Bank in Monroe, WA. There are 22,000 people in the 1st district who use food stamps to eat.

When bad media gets a good answer: A thoughtful social worker takes on KIRO

Sometimes when I happen to see the nightly news, it reminds me of why I’m glad I got rid of my television set.  What passes for news is too often sensationalist, hysterical, and devoid of any actual reporting. It’s depressing. Without good journalism, it’s hard to have meaningful dialogue about complicated public policy issues.  Then, sometimes, a thoughtful person gets disgusted enough to write out a reply, which is a good reminder that we do not have to let the public discourse be so degraded, and degrading.

The following letter was written by James Watkins, a social worker at DESC, one of our member organizations.  James kindly agreed to let us post the full text of his letter, which he wrote as a personal response to the KIRO video piece. He is not speaking on behalf of his employer ~ but he is speaking on behalf of many, many people who live and work and shop and pay taxes in Seattle.  Read his letter, and resolve to write your own letter the next time something infuriates or saddens or provokes you about how people who are homeless are described in the media.

November 15, 2013
Henry Rosoff, KIRO News
2807 Third Avenue, Seattle, WA 98121

Dear Mr. Rosoff:

I work at one of the supportive housing facilities you depicted in “The Most Dangerous Block in Seattle.” Our organization cares for individuals who do not have the physical, mental, or emotional skills to care for themselves. The residents we support are chosen based on an assessment of their vulnerability; every single one of them is struggling daily to overcome a cycle of trauma, addiction, homelessness, mental illness; and many are also coping with developmental disorders, physical disabilities, and terminal illnesses.

My job is to fulfill the community’s obligation to keep its most vulnerable citizens housed, fed, reasonably clean, and safe. It is exhausting and frequently thankless work. We work hard to remind our clients that they have choices, opportunities to grow, that they have value as human beings, friends, families, and a future.

Last night the residents that I care for gathered in the TV room and saw our community sensationally depicted as a violent “underbelly”; our neighbors portrayed as dangerous criminals and drug addled garbage. We watched you question our friend on whether it was “fair” that emergency services respond in our neighborhood, and save poor people’s lives with the same standards of care as they do in the rest of Seattle.

I realize you were thinking about the financial costs of emergency services, but underneath you were asking my friend whether his life is worth its cost to taxpayers.

Could you reflect for a moment on the contempt that is inherent in asking him that question while his neighbor was hovering between life and death, receiving CPR upstairs? Could it be a surprise to you that our residents often already perceive themselves as worthless and see our situation as hopeless? Can you perceive how your approach to our story reinforces trauma and further damages self-perception? Can you understand that it drives the wedge of division between “us” and “them” even deeper, making it even harder for my friends to believe that they deserve help, hope, and redemption to the community?

To briefly answer the valid financial question that you asked so inappropriately, many studies have shown that the kind of housing and services that DESC provides not only save lives and reduce homelessness, but providing housing decreases high utilizers’ dependency on emergency services and Medicaid, and saves taxpayer’s money. As an organization and as individuals, my coworkers are acutely aware of the cost of emergency services. Support staff perform a number of crucial functions in concert with emergency service personnel: assessing situations and determining whether to call 911 or the non-emergency services of the Seattle Police Department and ambulance services, facilitating First Responders access to medical history, providing info on a client’s known history of drug abuse, and recent mental health status, all in order to decrease the number of calls made and the time that a call takes.

The organization I work for maintains 300 apartments and 200 shelter beds in the immediate vicinity of the block you depicted. They are here because it makes financial sense to focus social service efforts in one neighborhood, and in turn, there are a high number of emergency calls on this block because much of Seattle’s population of individuals with the most severe mental illness and chemical dependency problems are concentrated here.

This doesn’t, however support the claim that it’s the most “dangerous” area of Seattle. Without access to your data, I’d suggest it is likely that a large number of the “violent crimes” in your report are occurring within the supportive housing buildings themselves. These are almost entirely minor assaults, threats, disputes, and thefts, between residents or against staff that get reported for a variety of legal, liability, and reporting purposes, often submitted by staff via the non-emergency police contact number.

In addition, there are predators who come to the neighborhood to find easy prey amongst our clients. They exploit them financially, physically, emotionally, and sexually, targeting them for their chemical dependency, their hunger, their emotional need, and their despair. The average citizen walking the streets has little to fear from them. We do our best to identify these individuals and report any incidents to the police. We also have our own safety patrol and safety teams intended to respond quickly to developing situations.

Our community has profound needs. It has serious problems, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest it for your upcoming exposé on the “Happiest, Friendliest, Safest Block in Seattle.” But your report chose to focus SOLELY on the negative aspects of the Pioneer Square neighborhood without fully acknowledging the social and economic roots of the problem, ongoing efforts to address our clients needs, or offering ANY suggestions or solutions (other than law enforcement, who rightly admitted that they can’t “arrest their way out of the situation.”)

The “Most Dangerous Block in Seattle” is the result of a culture-wide practice of socially isolating economically disadvantaged people who struggle with various combinations of mental illness, physical and developmental disabilities, terminal disease, and chemical dependency; then ghettoizing them through incarceration or institutionalization into an environment of desperation, and subsequently failing to provide adequate resources for treatment, education, health care and emotional counseling. And finally with reports like this, stigmatizing them through sensationalist reporting and misrepresentation making reintegration into the larger society even more difficult if not impossible.

Our residents watch the news. When they are the news, and the news is hopeless, their already difficult situation is made even worse. The way to improve conditions in Pioneer Square is not by spreading fear but by working to improve these human beings’ access to care. They are not monsters, nor leeches. They are desperate people, suffering from real diseases – biological, social, and spiritual. Offer them your hope, not your contempt. They have already had plenty of that.

James Watkins

2,736 people had no shelter in King County last night

The One Night Count of homeless people in King County took place early this morning.  We are incredibly grateful to the many volunteers and supporters whose careful work made this a safe, respectful, and accurate Count.

At least 2,736 men, women, and children were found sleeping on sidewalks, under bridges, in their cars, on public transit, and in temporary structures and makeshift campsites. This is 142 more people than our volunteers counted outside one year ago.

The work we do together on this One Night is just the beginning. It sets in motion a full year of education, engagement, and action for all of us who care about this crisis. This morning, returning to warmth indoors, we are especially aware of this truth:  everyone should have a place to call home.

Volunteers returned from counting shocked and saddened to see their neighbors sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes or riding Metro buses to keep warm.  Many are also inspired to urge public officials to match these basic needs with robust resources.  Right now, our State Legislators are debating funding for key housing and homelessness programs:  I am asking every person who volunteered for this One Night Count, and every member of our Coalition, to commit to taking action.  Let us make sure the One Night Count is more than just a big, sad number.

Are you interested in helping?

  • Come to a Homelessness Advocacy 101 Workshop in Seattle or Bellevue on Saturday, February 9 ~ register here.
  • Join Coalition members as we meet with and educate lawmakers in Olympia on Monday, February 11 for Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day ~ register here.
  • Support the Coalition’s work through a financial donation. Donations made through February 28 will be matched, up to $7,000, providing a unique opportunity to double the impact of your gift. Donate online today.

After seeing what our community came together to accomplish in a few short hours this morning, I’m confident that together, we can ensure safety for people who are homeless today and end the crisis of homelessness once and for all.

Visit our website for the 2013 street count results in more detail.  

The One Night Count: Community-powered assessment of our regional crisis

Photo by Aaron Piazza
Photo by Aaron Piazza

The One Night Count of people who are homeless in our King County communities is just 3 days away.  Nearly 1,000 volunteers will disperse across the county in the early pre-dawn hours this Friday, January 25.  They will stay quiet, check their maps, and count every single person they see huddling under a blanket, staying in a tent, and sleeping in a car.  Volunteer counters will bear witness to people’s ingenuity and desperation as they try to survive another cold winter night outside.

Later that morning, after each team’s results are compiled into our big spreadsheet, we will all feel sorrow and amazement at how many people we have counted.  Whether the numbers are slightly up or slightly down, it is a near certainty that well over 2300 people will have spent the night outdoors.  For many people, indignation and sadness will turn to inspiration and determination, as people who have volunteered to help with the Count resolve to take action, to make it a personal and public priority to bring down the numbers of people without shelter, and without housing.

The Coalition plays a unique role in organizing the One Night Count.  We begin work with our partners in October, work that culminates in late January when more than 130 team captains gather their teams, pick up maps and flashlights and waterproof tally sheets, and head out into the cold night. This “street count” is the largest of several projects that the Coalition coordinates for the One Night Count.  We also implement several special projects including: our Veteran’s Interview Project, a survey conducted the day after the street count to help us know more about veterans who lack basic shelter;  special sleepovers for homeless youth and young adults; and our Bus Count of people who ride all night on buses, attempting to stay warm and safe.

Made in America: Homeless veterans on our streets during the One Night Count

“Made in America” ~ Photo courtesy of David Entrekin.  All rights reserved.

This photograph by local business owner, citizen activist, and photographer David Entrekin always takes my breath away.  Click on the image to see the larger photo, and you will see the words on the cardboard carefully laid out to make a sleeping surface: Made in America.  That is how I think about homelessness, and it is especially, painfully apt as we think about homelessness among veterans of our armed forces.

At least 62,619 veterans were homeless overnight during the January 2012 one night counts across the nation. This shocking number includes veterans in shelters and transitional housing programs, as well as those who lack even basic overnight shelter.  Last year, the Coalition developed a new part of the One Night Count designed to improve our  knowledge about how many veterans are without basic overnight shelter.

Homelessness among veterans rivets people’s attention.  People who are  quick to think about homelessness as a complex combination of individual shortcomings, societal failures, and economic hard times, come easily to a simple conclusion:  no person who risked his or her life in service to this nation should be shivering under a bridge.

In the last two years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) has begun working more deliberately and closely with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to address homelessness among veterans.  The good news is that this effort has meant that new, additional resources, including money, are being directed to reach out to, shelter, support, and house veterans.  When the national 2012 One Night Count results were released a few weeks ago, Secretary Donovan at HUD and Secretary Shinseki at the VA proudly noted a 7% decrease in homelessness among veterans since the January 2011 count.

For our Veterans Interview Project (VIP), we train volunteers to ask short survey questions the morning after the One Night Count, placing them at public meal sites, day centers, employment and hygiene programs, and other locations where a high proportion of people are likely to have spent the previous night outdoors.  Last year we partnered with 16 Coalition member agencies and other organizations, and spoke with nearly a thousand individuals.  Our volunteers asked three simple questions:

  1. Where did you stay last night?
  2. Have you ever served in the U.S. Armed Forces?
  3. Were you ever called into active duty as a member of the National Guard or as a Reservist?

Through this survey, and through our survey of key service providers who work with homeless people and veterans, we showed that at least 163 King County veterans lacked basic overnight shelter on this one cold, winter night.  This information strengthened and informed our local, regional, and national work.

The Veterans Interview Project improved our local count of veterans, but the sad truth is that we know that actual numbers of unsheltered veterans are higher.  Our careful counts are conservative, and not comprehensive. They allow us to state with confidence that at least 163 veterans in our community need immediate and long-term help, among the many hundreds of people who are outside overnight.

On January 25, 2013, we will be conducting our Veterans Interview Project again.  If you are interested in helping the Coalition with this special project, we are looking for people who are available for a three hour shift on Friday, January 25, 2013, and who have experience working with veterans or people who are homeless.  Please click here to fill out a volunteer application. Thank you.