Seattle's new fight for Housing for All

Steve Leigh reports on the kickoff event of a new campaign in Seattle to fight for the rights of homeless people and demand affordable housing.

Protesters demand an end to homeless sweeps in Seattle, WashingtonProtesters demand an end to homeless sweeps in Seattle, Washington

MORE THAN 300 people rallied in Seattle on September 9 to launch the "Housing for All--Stop the Sweeps" Campaign.

As in other U.S. cities, homelessness is a severe problem in Seattle. Nearly 1 percent of Seattle's population is without regular housing. The yearly "one night count" in January--in which the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness tallies the number of homeless in the city--found 3,857 people sleeping outside in the city. This doesn't count those in shelters and other temporary housing.

Seattle is a boomtown, with rapid job and population growth and building cranes everywhere. Unfortunately, the luxury apartments being built are not for the homeless or other low-income residents.

Seattle has one of the most extreme wealth gaps in the U.S. "The wealthiest fifth of Seattle households earned 19 times more than the poorest fifth in 2013--that's up from 18 times more the previous year," reported the Seattle Times in 2014. One 2013 study found that over 100,000 workers in this city of 700,000 were making less than $15 per hour.

Yet apartment rental prices are through the roof. A recent report noted, "The average rent for an apartment in Seattle is $1,726, a 7 percent increase compared to the previous year." Every $100 increase in average monthly rent is estimated to cause an increase in homelessness by 5 percent.

In 2015, the city government declared a "state of emergency" over homelessness. Yet the actions of city officials don't show the sense of urgency that is warranted.

In fact, official policies have made things worse. The police regularly ticket and tow cars that homeless people live in. The city has a policy of homeless "sweeps" that shut down homeless camps, confiscate belongings and scatter people to the wind.

The city's "Rapid Rehousing" program gives only a three- to nine-month voucher to cover housing costs, but then dumps the formerly homeless person back onto the inflated private market. This creates a revolving door in and out of homelessness.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

ALL OF this is what has prompted more than a dozen organizations to join together to form the new Housing for All--Stop the Sweeps Campaign and hold the September 9 event.

The campaign has three main demands: End the sweeps; set up a legal structure for car camping; and build 24,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years.

Speakers at the rally spoke eloquently and angrily to these issues. "I am sick of hearing that the rents are so high because that is what the market will bear," said emcee Tammy Morales. "I am sick of hearing that the market only wants to build luxury apartments. The market can kiss my ass."

Other speakers agreed and made the case that the government must build the needed apartments.

Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, said that the economic system causes competition for scarce resources. She called on people to come together to demand that their needs be met and hold the politicians accountable.

Nick, the president of the PTA at Lowell Elementary School, noted, "Adults are not the only face of homelessness. At our school, 118 students are homeless. That is 38 percent of all the students. There is high turnover [of students at school]. Students don't know why their friends have disappeared. We only have one case worker for those 118 students."

In the Seattle Public Schools as a whole, one in 15 students are homeless. In the 2015-16 school year, the number of homeless students in King County had more than doubled from 2007-08 to over 8,000.

One speaker from the Neighborhood Action Coalition explained what it is like to be homeless as a young person:

Every day, I had to figure out where I could eat and sleep. As a queer youth, I had great fear of the police. Even supposedly sympathetic people threatened to call the police on me or even threatened physical violence. I had to keep watch all the time. I could only sleep a couple hours at a time. I was constantly tired. The sweeps keep people in constant motion. This never allows us to accumulate the resources needed to get out of homelessness. People deserve stability and dignity!

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

SEVERAL SPEAKERS noted that homelessness not only exacerbates health problems, but also causes death. Anita Freeman from Real Change and Women in Black said, "So far this year, 57 people have died of homelessness in Seattle, eight in August alone. We are holding vigil for six people this week."

The Campaign's Facebook page summarized the issue:

It's been two years since the city of Seattle declared a Homelessness State of Emergency, and the homelessness crisis has only deepened...The city's response to this crisis isn't working, in large part because it fails to reckon with the shortage of deeply affordable housing. City policies end up punishing homeless people rather than giving them a leg up.

This is unacceptable. Things need to change, and there's no better time than now. Our elected officials and all the candidates for mayor, City Council, and city attorney need to know where the people stand.

Scott Myers, a Transit Riders Union organizer finished the event with a call to action:

Hate is on the march in Seattle. The Neighborhood Safety Alliance and well-to-do creeps want to kick people when they are down. When hate is quiet, we miss it. We have to defeat it with love. Love is not just an emotion. It is a promise. Love can only be effective when it creates new institutions that create equality. We have to fight every attempt to dehumanize people.

Real power is organized. This means work--phone calls, attending hearings, bearing witness at sweeps and going to meetings.

The September 9 event was only the first step in what promises to be a long and intense fight for housing justice--one of the most important issues people face.