Updated with comments from Dannette Smith, director of the city's Human Services department.
Mayor Mike McGinn's plan to move 100 homeless people to a semi-permanent encampment at the defunct Sunny Jim's peanut-butter factory in SODO is already raising concerns from the people most likely to support it—homeless advocates. Their issue is mainly one of timing. First, they fear the mayor's time line for moving homeless people onto the site by October is unrealistic.
"I would be very surprised if they met this six-month time frame—land use changes need to be made and this time line doesn’t acknowledge that," explains Tim Harris, the executive director of Real Change, a homeless advocacy newspaper. "Also, it assumes that the whole process of approving the funds won’t get hung up by city council and that process will go smoothly."
Second, they say his goal for moving them into stable housing within a year of entering the camp is untenable and might set the whole pilot project up for failure. "It will be a huge challenge, addressing a homeless person’s barriers to housing, getting them sorted out, and getting them into a place that has space—which not many do," says Lindsay Lund, a spokeswoman for the Compass Housing Alliance, which helps homeless and low-income people find housing in Seattle. "A year is not very long to do that."
"There aren’t a lot of open spots in transitional housing and there's a queue of people that already exists," says Harris.
But Dannette Smith, director of the city's Human Services department—which crafted the goals for moving homeless campers into stable housing—argues that while there are subsidized housing wait lists, "we also see people moving into market-rate housing at the same time."
The whole goal of the pilot project is to connect homeless people to social services and transition them to stable housing. But if the barometer for success is finding housing within a year, as the mayor's proposal indicates, and if this barometer is unrealistic, as housing advocates fear, it could give critics a leg up in shit-canning future city-sanctioned homeless camps. "The mayor's office has potentially set up a few huge roadblocks for continuing projects like this," says Harris. "With Nickelsville [a roaming homeless encampment that will likely end up at the SODO site], there’s a strong track record of success and self-management. I would hope that a bunch of city mandated regulations doesn't disrupt that."
Smith says she understands the concerns raised but says the project is designed to be both ambitious and reactionary. "We recognize this goal is very lofty," she says, "but we'll be measuring this process on a monthly basis so we can see in real time where we may have to make some corrections. We'll be working in real time, which will allow for us to make corrective actions as we go."
Seattle City Council members are equally leery of the McGinn's proposal.
Before the site can be made ready for campers, the Seattle City Council must approve 1) money to decontaminate the site of hazardous materials and 2) changes to the site's current industrial land use to allow people to live there. This second point includes a lengthy environmental review process, which business owners and nearby residents will undoubtedly challenge (adding months of delay to the process). For this reason, while the city could vote now to release city money to upgrade the site, the city council can't vote to change the site's land use until next March.
To skirt around this problem, McGinn's office is asking the Department of Planning Development to grant the city a temporary, six-month permit to move people onto the site in October. "I don’t know whether that’s a wise choice," says council member Sally Clark, who chairs the council's built environment committee. Clark says that betting on the council's ability to approve the land use changes next year is risky at best. "That permit takes them to next March, but then what? This is a remarkably controversial plan that many residents oppose. If the council doesn't support [the land use changes] next year, I don’t know what that sets them up for—but it may be a serious lawsuit."
Piloting a homeless encampment in SODO is ambitious. It's a project most liberals in this city, or at the very least homeless advocates, should be able to get behind. But right now, it seems to be off to a withering start.