The operators of Seattle’s third authorized homeless encampment have a message for the expert advising Mayor Ed Murray on homelessness: Pay us a visit.
During her time in Seattle last month, Barbara Poppe said Murray should stop opening the encampments of tents and tiny houses and letting children live in them.
The nationally known consultant being paid $80,000 to help the city deal with its homelessness crisis described the situation here as “horrifying” and “unconscionable.”
But Poppe didn’t tour the city’s Ballard and Interbay encampments, which opened in November, nor the third encampment, which opened in Rainier Valley on Tuesday with a number of tents and eight tiny houses painted by volunteers in bright colors such as yellow and pink.
Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which helps operate the tent cities, says Poppe should have talked to people living at the sites.
“(Poppe) condemned tent cities but she failed to visit any of them,” Lee said. “It’s unconscionable we had an $80,000 consultant come here and not do her homework.”
The Rainier Valley site was set to welcome more than a dozen residents Tuesday, including three families with children, Lee said. Located near the Othello light-rail station on a pair of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South properties owned by the Housing Institute, the encampment eventually will accommodate 60 to 80 people, she said.
The Housing Institute and another nonprofit, Nickelsville, received a permit for the site last month under an ordinance the City Council passed last year allowing Murray to authorize and help pay for services at three encampments with up to 100 people each.
The mayor has declared a homelessness state of emergency in Seattle; on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced $49 million in funding for homeless services in Washington, more than all but nine other states.
The Rainier Valley site includes portable toilets, a kitchen and other amenities. Besides tents and the tiny houses with heat and electricity, the encampment paved with gravel will also have two homes made out of shipping containers, Lee said.
Residents will take turns doing chores, including working at the security gate where people will sign in. Drugs, alcohol, weapons, violence and sex offenders will be barred.
The Housing Institute hopes to renovate a small, vacant store on the properties so residents can shower there. The encampment will remain open for a year or two.
Poppe said officials should show more commitment to the Housing-First approach, which gives people immediate access to apartments, usually with supportive services.
But Lee says the city’s encampments are an emergency necessity; there are hundreds of families living on the street now and building new housing takes years.
The Housing Institute’s social workers have helped 36 people move from the Ballard and Interbay sites into housing and helped 22 people obtain jobs, she said.
“This isn’t a dead end. This is a way to help vulnerable people get housing, get jobs and develop self-sufficiency,” Lee remarked. “If we didn’t have these tent cities, these people would be struggling on their own — living under a tree, living under a bridge.”
Ron Momoda, 67, lives near the Rainier Valley site and is worried. Nickelsville encampments, which are self-managed by residents, erupted in controversy before.
The Housing Institute and Nickelsville are currently seeking to evict people from a church-hosted site on South Dearborn Street due to clashes over leadership there.
“I’m not convinced that self-management works,” Momoda said.
The Rainier Valley encampment’s tiny houses are being built by different groups of volunteers. Lawrence Willis, a program administrator at Seattle Vocational Institute, worked with students to build a house now painted Seahawks blue and green.
“They had a lot of love and excitement about doing something,” he said. “Many of our students are low-income people of color who understand the issue of homelessness.”
Shawn Cunningham, 56, and Kelly Lyons, 52, said Tuesday they were planning to move into one of the tiny houses. They’ve been living for several years in Tent City 3, a roving community hosted for a few months at a time by different religious institutions.
Cunningham had work at a garden-supply store recently, then tore a rotator cuff, he said. Lists for housing are long and many buildings don’t accept couples, Lyons said.
“We know we’re welcome here,” she said. “We get a home until we have a house.”
Seleima Silikula and her 5-year-old son, Tui, were the first residents to move into a tiny house at the site. They received hygiene products such as toothpaste, and toys for Tui.
Silikula was smiling but she wasn’t ready to talk about the journey that led her to the encampment. “I’m overwhelmed right now,” she said.
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