Tents, tents, everywhere tents…

By United Way of King County, on January 21, 2015 | In Fighting Homelessness

I don’t know about you but it sure seems like I’m seeing more and more people in our community struggling with homelessness.  I’m particularly struck by the number of tents that I see – under bridges, on sidewalks, set-up on greenbelts, and on and on.

Of course, the problem isn’t that there are a lot of tents.  The problem is that we have more and more people in our community who are experiencing homelessness.  Last year our One Night Count found 3,123 people who were unsheltered on the night of the count.  This year’s One Night Count takes place later this week and most people I talk with expect that we’ll find even more people outside.

So why do we keep seeing more and more people who are homeless?  It’s a complex and confounding question.  People will say that it’s because we don’t have enough funding, or that the cost of housing is too high here, or that everything that we’re doing to end homelessness just attracts people to this community.  At the same time we know that many of our interventions are exactly what’s needed to help make homelessness rare, brief, and one-time.  We’re implementing a whole series of best practices whether it’s Housing First, Rapid Re-housing, coordinated entry and assessment, etc.

And for some reason we’re not seeing the types of results that other communities are beginning to report.  Places like Houston, New Orleans, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City have reported significant declines in veterans homelessness and chronic homelessness.

So what are they doing that we aren’t?  Or is that even the correct question?

I wonder if it’s less a matter of what we are doing and more a matter of how we’re doing it. It seems that despite the appearance of cooperation and collaboration between funders, providers, advocates, and others that in some fundamental way we’re out of alignment in how our community can end homelessness.  Funders are not aligned with one another in the strategies that need to be funded and supported.  I also don’t think that as a whole funders fully appreciate the challenges that many of our non-profits face in trying to align with new, emerging strategies.  Similarly there are some providers who are entrenched in the ways that we’ve always done the work.  Funders, providers and others need to acknowledge that what we’ve always done isn’t working.  We need to stop talking past one another and start talking to one another.  We need to understand that ending homelessness will require that we face the challenge together.  We need to get beyond telling ourselves that we are the best at what we do and we need to prove it.

I’m hoping that this year’s One Night Count will be down.  But whether it’s down, up, or the same, the number is still way too high.  And that should remind us all that we still have work to do, that we have to honestly examine what’s working/what isn’t, and that we have to have the courage to dare to do our work differently.


Bashie English
January 23, 2015

They have proven that providing housing works and is cheaper for the city.
Two cities have ended homelessness in this way.
It is possible.
I volunteer with New Horizons here in Seattle and we work with the homeless street kids.

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DR La Boite
January 24, 2015

What we aren't doing is implementing strategies like Housing First. You have shelters doing business the same way as they did 20 years ago. When your providers continue to perform the same kind of ineffective programming, you cannot expect that magically their outcomes will improve and homelessness will decrease. When other cities have a message that says that the homeless will be housed, then those that want housing will take it and those who don't will migrate to cities, like Seattle who say, living in encampments is fine by us. And now, the city has approved more shelters and more encampments and are expecting HSD to somehow provide the services needed to move the campers into housing? Where is the collective voice that establishes the culture of understanding that in Seattle and King County, living indefinitely in a tent is not acceptable? Next year we will be in the same place as we are today, just with an organized tent city rather than disparate encampments, subsidized by the city. Shameful.

Replies to DR La Boite
January 29, 2015

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of implementing strategies like Housing First. In fact, our community has been one of the national leaders in utilizing Housing First to move people out of homelessness. Unfortunately, while we’ve been very successful in utilizing Housing First we still have large numbers of individuals and families in this community who are unsheltered. We know that the vast majority of those people come from King County and that there’s a wide range of reason they’ve become homeless.

Every day we see people fleeing domestic violence, veterans, women and their children, and youth and young adults in our shelters. And every day those same shelters are full to capacity and overflowing. Tent cities have been controversial but I have to applaud the courage of the City of Seattle’s Mayor in recognizing that our community has to do something to provide for the safety of people who are trying to survive without shelter. A tent is not a home. A tent is not a long-term solution. But tent cities do provide some stability, some safety, and for many are the first step out of homelessness.

All comments are approved before they are posted to the site.

All comments are approved before they are posted to the site.

All comments are approved before they are posted to the site.