Every day, organizations across King County work hand-in-hand with people who have experienced homelessness to help them heal from trauma and chart a path toward stability and self-sufficiency.
At Solid Ground, we start with housing and then work with residents to identify the services they need to build stability into their lives: job training, mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, mobility assistance, or access to medical care. It’s a long, sometimes difficult process – but it works. So why, then, are there still thousands of people sleeping every night in Seattle’s parks and emergency shelters, and on the streets?
Earlier this month, Solid Ground brought together a diverse group of voices from the world of housing and homelessness to examine why this crisis persists in King County when the solutions are so clear. Each person brought different experiences and perspectives to the conversation, part of a series of Social Justice Salons hosted by Solid Ground. But all shared frustration with a stagnated response to homelessness, and also hope for paths forward.
This is what we learned together.
It starts with housing – but housing alone isn’t enough.
Conversations about solving homelessness in Seattle are inevitably bogged down by a debate over whether we need more housing or more mental health and substance abuse services. People who’ve experienced homelessness in their own lives usually tell you that what we need is both – in the same place.
“It’s not enough to just drop people into an environment and then expect that something’s going to be different,” says Lhorna Murray, a community activist who has experienced homelessness and now lives at Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing campus.
“We can’t do it alone in Seattle. It needs to be Seattle working with King County, working with the State of Washington, working with the federal government. And when we create that ripple effect, I think we can be successful.” ~Emily Alvarado, Vice President, Enterprise Community Partners
At Sand Point, housing comes with wraparound services. Case managers support residents to identify what they need to build stability, and then achieve self-sufficiency and meet their personal goals. It’s a model that’s been proven to work time and time again.
“If you provide someone housing who has substance abuse or mental health problems, they’re not going to be successful,” said Dee Hillis, Solid Ground’s Residential Services Director. “But if we can package it together, so that person’s needs are addressed at the same time, they’re going to have the opportunity to be successful.”
“At a granular level we know exactly what to do to solve homelessness, so the big question becomes, ‘How do we make the real innovations, doing it over and over again, repeating it, growing it, scaling it?’” said Emily Alvarado, Vice President of Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit affordable housing developer.
“We can’t do it alone in Seattle,” Emily said. “It needs to be Seattle working with King County, working with the State of Washington, working with the federal government. And when we create that ripple effect, I think we can be successful.”
The way we think about housing must change.
We can’t end homelessness unless we stop thinking about housing as a commodity or a tool for building personal wealth. Instead, we must recognize it as something more essential to human life, or as Marcia Fudge, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, declared this spring, “a human right.”¹
But that’s not how the government treats housing now. If you can’t afford medical care in the U.S., you’re automatically eligible for coverage under Medicaid. If you can’t afford food, the federal government will give you an EBT card that you can use at the grocery store. But if you can’t afford housing? You’d be lucky to get a voucher to cover your rent and then find a landlord who’ll accept it. In fact, the Seattle Housing Authority hasn’t held a lottery for Housing Choice Vouchers since 2017, and some people are still waiting for their voucher five years later.²
“The return on investment may look different, but at the ground level it’s just taking care of people. And that’s despite the fact that we know that stable housing leads to better health and lower health costs.” ~Doug Baldwin, Jr., Owner, Vault 89 Ventures
“Why won’t they pay for you to have a place to live if we know it makes your health better?” said Nicole Macri, Deputy Director for Strategy at Downtown Emergency Service Center and a member of the Washington state House of Representatives.
In Washington, that’s exactly what’s starting to happen under a new law championed by Rep. Frank Chopp. It treats chronic homelessness as a medical condition and invests millions of dollars into the creation of supportive housing across the state.
Doug Baldwin Jr., owner of Vault 89 Ventures (and former Seahawks wide receiver), champions the idea that supportive housing makes sense for private landlords too. “When you take care of folks – when you see them, and when you love them, and you care about them as human beings – they take care of their stuff, right?
“We give folks an opportunity to go seek out the resources they need and that they want, and we provide that; we eliminate the barriers to do that. And then the data comes back in, and we don’t experience as many issues with damage to our properties. Folks who have been delinquent on their rent, they’re not as delinquent anymore,” Doug said.
“We know this, we have the data on this. The return on investment may look different, but at the ground level, it’s just taking care of people.”
This isn’t just about homelessness. It’s about housing people can afford.
Supportive housing is a key part of the solution to homelessness, but it does little to address our larger housing crisis – both the shortage of housing and its astronomical cost. And the two crises are inseparable.
For one, more and more people will become homeless every day if housing costs continue to outpace wage growth. And for those who’ve lived through homelessness and found stability and success in supportive housing, we need affordable private-market options so they can move on and create space for others who need supportive housing. Finally, public housing development options are simply not happening fast enough to address the crisis we have today.
“Yes, we need more resources to build subsidized, permanently affordable housing, but we also know that that’s not going to be enough anytime soon.” ~Emily Alvarado
“Yes, we need more resources to build subsidized, permanently affordable housing, but we also know that that’s not going to be enough anytime soon,” Emily said. “So, what are the regulatory protections that we can put in place to make sure that there’s no speculation that’s pricing people out? And also, so that there are modest controls over yearly rent increases so they can’t go up faster than the incomes of normal working people? Regulatory solutions are important, and we’ve got to look at that as part of a policy and advocacy campaign.”
Could private developers also play a role in solving our housing crisis? Doug believes they could – if they are able to think differently about what they do.
“We have to find more people who can operationalize kindness and compassion, who aren’t solely focused on the bottom line,” said Doug. “Especially in the Seattle area, it is really easy for a developer to build housing and say, ‘I’m going to charge market rates,’ because you have Amazon, you have Microsoft, you have all these corporations that are bringing people here who can afford those rents. But there’s a large demographic of people who cannot.
“So we need those folks who have the money and the capacity and the resources to build housing but still say, ‘I’m going to keep the rents lower so that the folks who need the housing can afford the housing,’” Doug said.
The solution must be driven by those it seeks to serve.
Ultimately, whatever we do to end homelessness must be informed by the wisdom of people who have experienced it and therefore understand it the best. It must acknowledge their wisdom, humanity, and agency, and seek to serve them as whole people.
That’s not currently how our system works.
“The re-traumatization that can happen in the process of just trying to get necessities … can exacerbate issues you may already have,” said Mary Ruffin, a former Sand Point Housing resident who now serves as Vice Chair on Solid Ground’s Board of Directors.
“It puts you in a position where you are begging people who don’t know anything about you, who don’t come from your background, who really don’t know anything about the complete person that you are,” Mary said. “They’re distilling you into a ‘homeless person,’ into a ‘domestic violence victim,’ and that is something that I feel like we don’t talk about enough.
“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach,” she said. “People really deserve to be to be seen as complete people, and that is the best way that we can help them.”
Featured image at top: Dee Hillis, Residential Services Director for Solid Ground, speaks while Doug Baldwin Jr. looks on.
1) Secretary Fudge on Twitter: “Retweet if you believe housing is a right. Not a privilege.”
2) Seattle Housing Authority: Housing Choice Voucher waitlist