scaled._1030751.jpg
  • Ansel Herz

A small group calling themselves Women In Black held a silent vigil on Wednesday across from City Hall. For more than a decade, they've been holding vigils to bring attention to the deaths of homeless people in King County.

"We stand out here to acknowledge the fact that... their value as human beings is important to us," Elizabeth Iverson, who lives at Tent City 3 in North Seattle, told me. She said she's been homeless since losing her nursing job in 2010.

Homelessness is a big and complex issue, obviously, but the group says the most important thing right now is that winter shelters stay open throughout the entire summer. Normally they'd have closed by March 31, but last month, the city council designated $150,000 to keep them open through June 15.

"For [the city], that was a big concession—and it isn't nearly enough," Tim Harris, director of Real Change, told me. He said the shelter system is "radically under-resourced."

The shelters are "near capacity," David Takami, a spokesman for Seattle Human Services, confirmed. "There's definitely a need, and it's a question of whether we have the funding."

But as of now, the funding's not available. And winter conditions or not, the chronically homeless are four to nine times more likely to die than the general population.

So I called the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, expecting to hear about their efforts to keep the shelters open. Instead, what I got were a lot of long, awkward pauses, as Gretchen Bruce, the interim director who's been on the job about six months, struggled to say as little as possible.

"I'm not qualified to speak to the death count," she spluttered, when I asked her to comment on the spate of homeless deaths this year. Should the shelters stay open? "We are in conversation," she kept repeating. "We are trying to address it through the community." Whatever that means.

"It's above her pay grade," Harris said. According to him, the committee's governing board is engaged in an "intense debate" over spending on long-term solutions (e.g. creation and facilitation of affordable housing) versus immediate shelter.

That's the logic of austerity of speaking, though, not advocacy for the homeless population, which is what you might expect from something called the Committee to End Homelessness (CEH). "The challenges are going to be the shrinking resources and the continuing shredding of the social safety net," Bill Block, CEH's previous director, told the Seattle Times last year. Sounds like those challenges are continuing to go unmet in Seattle.

"'Without shelter, people die' isn't just a slogan," Harris said. "It's the reality." According to Women in Black, which credits King County Medical Examiners and Health Care for the Homeless for the data, 19 people have died outdoors or by violence in the past five months—matching the total for all of last year.

The group says of the last three individuals, who died in the last five weeks: one collapsed at a breakfast program, one died near a Bellevue doughnut shop, and one was shot to death while sleeping in his car.

Here's their full list of homeless dead so far this year. RIP.

Cause of DeathWhoWhenWhere
Acute Intoxication Byron Barnes, 47 January 2013 Ballard
Hypothermia Kathryn Ann Blair, 60 January 1200 bl Rainier S
Pending Brian Chambers, 59 January Renton
Pending Heather Pinney, 24 January 5th/Harrison
Burned to Death John Wallis, 59 January Harborview
Pending Patrick Dawson, 53 January East Marginal Way/Ellis
Acute Intoxication Joshua Walmsley, 28 January NE 92nd/I-5
Drowned Fernando Alonzo-Valencia, 25 January Kenmore
Pending LuAnn Bustamante, 56 February Elliott/W Lee
Suicide Kimberly Johnson, 49 February Tuwila/Int'l Blvd
Suicide Greg Zimmerman, 55 February 1300 bl S Dearborn
OD Erik Johnson, 46 February Federal Way
Anoxic Encephalopathy Daniel Garton, 49 February 5th/Harrison
Natural Causes Bradley Fernandez, 49 February Salmon Bay
Natural Causes Irvin Giesler, 60 March Redmond
Pending Michael Huntington, 37 March Kent
Pending Clinton Jackson, 28 April Bellevue
Pending Michael "Mikey" Hall, 56 April Ballard
Shot to Death Derrick Hargress, 50 May Rainier Valley