When word got out this fall that the Seattle City Council had proposed an ordinance expanding the public places where homeless individuals could safely sleep, notoriously liberal Seattle erupted into a rare Greek chorus of outrage. Many decried the city’s inability to gain control over the epidemic of homelessness; others expressed fury that anyone should have to resort to sleeping outside in a city of such wealth. Many brought up safety concerns, while others released a cathartic stream of fear that by opening parts of public parks to homeless camping, their communities would essentially be exposed to an underworld of dangerous and mentally ill people that would only expand until it flipped the neighborhood into some kind of dystopian terrorscape.
Regardless of one’s perspective, conversations about homelessness flooded the city. “What I’ve heard from folks is, ‘we want a compassionate approach to people who are sleeping outside. We want to see more resources and commitments from the city to get our arms around the crisis of homelessness right now,’” says council member Rob Johnson, who represents part of north Seattle. “People are not ashamed to say they’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about this issue.”
Coincidentally, the news of the ordinance spread during the yamim noraim, the 10 days of awe and repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the culmination of our petitions for life and mercy in the coming year. That lends itself to the question: how should the Jewish community respond to the expanding problem of homelessness in King County?
Safety is a legitimate concern, says Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, the head of the Va’ad HaRabanim of Greater Seattle, but we need to respond to the “unconscionable” problem of homelessness with heart. “Part of the mitzvah of tzedakah is to meet the needs of society,” he says. “To solve the problem is something we as Jews have to be deeply concerned about. We’re always concerned about the vulnerable and those who are in need. It’s part of the experience of the yetzias Mizrayim” — the escape from slavery in Egypt.
It’s our obligation as society members to help solve the problem. But how? Several local congregations have hosted or continue to host shelters, tent cities, soup kitchens, and programs to foster housing stability, but more work is needed. “At a big-picture level, it’s critical to focus on how to build out more affordable housing throughout the city and region,” Johnson says. “There are about 4,000 people in King County who sleep outside or in a car unsheltered every night. We must necessitate a regional approach. It can’t be Seattle going it alone. That said, it’s going to take a while to build out all the shelter space to effectively house those 4,000 people.”
Seattle’s homelessness epidemic is worsened by a number of challenges: the city’s rapidly growing population, lack of affordable housing, barriers of entry into the shelters (such as restrictions on spouses, families, and pets), and the sluggish movement of people in shelters to permanent housing. Expanding encampments is a short-term solution, but one that hits a nerve. Johnson suggests that might be because homelessness has become more visible, spreading into neighborhoods like Green Lake and Ravenna. “We are really doing a bad job of finding near-term and long-term solutions,” he says. It’s also hard to predict how homelessness will be addressed on the federal level now.
One near-term solution showing success is the Tiny Houses program operated by the Low Income Housing Institute, SHARE, and Nickelsville. At Othello Village in South Seattle, residents of the 8x12 houses run a self-governed, kibbutz-like community. Case managers help them with issues like health care, enrolling kids in school, and moving into the limited permanent housing available. Currently 70 people live at the village, and since March about 50 people have moved into permanent or other transitional housing. Six children have been enrolled in school, and 11 people have found employment, according to CFO Lynne Behar.
Behar is reaching out to Jewish schools to encourage service projects, and Johnson notes that faith-based organizations have contacted him to find out how they can assist. “If organizations are looking for help — technical assistance, funding, permitting, case management — if there are congregations that need financial support or permitting or city resources, I would encourage them to contact my office,” Johnson says. “We would love to partner with them.”