Activists Highlight Seattle Homelessness at City Council Budget Hearing
By Monet Harris
Originally published in the November 2014 issue.
Heaving from a previously unassuming fall sky, the rain started coming down in the mid-afternoon as concerned citizens headed toward Seattle City Hall for the Budget Committee’s public hearing. The shift in weather was just an inconvenience for a lot of us; we cursed ourselves for forgetting an umbrella or not timing our departure and arrival just so. Crowded under awnings we waited for buses or headed inside a shop to look around while the clouds passed, but the night was long for the estimated 9,000 homeless people living in King County.
Aimed at raising awareness for homeless issues and the need for an allocation of funds to address them, advocacy group and weekly news publication Real Change held an OutsideIN rally just before proceedings as part of an on-going effort to educate the public. Back in May the campaign organized a shoe drive and gathering at Westlake.
To drive the point home, the City Hall demonstration featured 3,123 donated pairs of shoes to visually reflect the headcount of homeless persons taken by volunteers with the Coalition to End Homelessness on the night of January 24th of this year. Curious onlookers stopped and asked questions, and despite being quickly soaked by the storm (rumor of tents provided by the city proved to be false), a few people who could be perceived as being homeless tried on different pairs.
During the public comment section of the council budget meeting, numerous activists took to the podium. Jess Spear, a member of Socialist Alternative and candidate for a position in the State Legislature, spoke first and demanded the council raise the 3 to 4 million necessary to prevent cuts to social services. Spear said the city is “awash” in wealth and it is not being distributed properly and for the good of the people. One of the initiatives she threw her support behind was OutsideIN, holding up a sign reading “Without Shelter, People Die” and repeating the mission statement to attain shelter for a thousand people by 2015.
Every speaker advocated for their own cause, but the eradication of homelessness had the most voices in both direct and intersectional cases. Vendors Susan Russell and Sharon Jones, who were accompanied by pallbearers carrying a coffin filled with five thousand signatures, represented Real Change.
Russell kept it personal, detailing her life as an accomplished cement mason who helped build Safeco Field and the Microsoft Campus before she suffered injury from being rear-ended which prevented her from working. She survived on savings for two years before living on the street where she has been beaten, raped, and robbed while waiting for the city to act. Her story best represents the cross section heard as speakers from women and youth groups as well as elderly services detailed the pressing needs of their organizations.
Now in its 9th year, the city’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness has been unable to curb the population that is steadily growing. The 3,123 figure is a 14% increase over the previous year alone and does not account for those outside the search parameters nor people who hide or choose not to identify themselves.
Released back in September, Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed budget would see a 3% increase in money for human services with $1.75 million of that sum to be allocated to homeless organizations like Urban Rest Stop, which provides hygiene facilities for individuals and families. A portion of the budget will also be used to offset job cuts and transition a handful of veterans and long-time homeless into permanent housing.
While positively received by the Seattle Human Services Coalition, the concern is that the amount will not be enough and be quickly exhausted. Murray’s budget’s heavy reliance on the usual revenue streams (property tax, construction impact fees, and retail sales tax) will allegedly make it rote and insufficient to not just address homelessness but build vital infrastructure projects like affordable housing.
During her speech, Spear said a the millionaire’s tax would do well with the other revenue sources to allow for adequate funding for forward thinking solutions.
Council Member Kshama Sawant recently lambasted her colleagues for going on a retreat with corporate executives, calling it a “brazen display of corporate favoritism”. The accusation was hard to dismiss during the budget hearing with only five of the seven council members showing up to the hearing and then disappearing periodically throughout. One speaker Karen Stutters found herself “in awe” of their perceptible indifference.