Courthouse Park lies across the street from the King County Administration Building in downtown Seattle. A sad and well-used park, it serves as a public lounge for several older men who wear threadbare clothes, smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, and drink from tall, wide cans they hold in brown paper bags each day.
Last Thursday afternoon, the men were joined by perhaps 50 others: middle-aged ladies in T-shirts and jeans or blouses and dresses, couples weighed down by backpacks, single men with wild facial hair, tense organizers at the center of everything. They were all rallying for SHARE, the homeless service/advocacy organization, which had just that morning closed more than a dozen indoor homeless shelters housing 450 people, citing insolvency.
The demonstrators wanted King County to help SHARE shore up its funding, and provided county leaders a clear message for what would happen if it didn’t by setting up a camp on the administration building’s pavilion. Men, women, and at least one young child brought backpacks and bags, each claiming a section of concrete. A cool breeze flowed through the warm night. Tables were piled with food, and piles of cardboard boxes filled with single-use gray blankets donated by Operation Nightwatch. Men stood by the railing, smoking in silhouette before the brass-colored lights of the nighttime city skyline.
SHARE stands for Seattle Housing and Resource Effort. Since 1990, the group has been fighting for its own unique brand of ostensibly self-managed homeless encampments. This isn’t the first time it’s staged highly public appeals for more funding. In 2011, SHARE organized a similar sleep-in to pressure the Gates Foundation into funding one of its shelters. In 2006, SHARE successfully stood down the city’s attempt to tie funding to demographic reporting, claiming that such reporting would be an invasion of privacy. It did so with a year of demonstrations. Pirates of civil disobedience, the organization is one of the defining forces in Seattle homeless policy.
But SHARE has continued to struggle to make ends meet. According to tax documents, the organization runs on a budget of roughly $750,000 per year. A recent city review of SHARE’s finances found that it went from being “distressed financially” in 2013 to “worse” in 2014. One reason for this money trouble is that in its latest round of funding homeless services, the county did not renew a $20,000 grant to the organization. “Due to funding cuts and loss of revenue, SHARE has struggled [in 2015] to make ends meet to pay expenses resulting in increase of debt balances,” the review says.
Sherry Hamilton, spokesperson for the King County Department of Community and Health Services, says the county awards contracts every two years through a competitive “open funding round.” While SHARE had a $20,000 contract with the county during 2013–14, Hamilton says, competition for 2015–16 was especially stiff, with requests totaling $11 million for $4 million in available funding. SHARE’s application just didn’t make the cut, she says, though they’re encouraged to apply again this fall for 2017–18 funding.
In other words, SHARE’s leadership has seen this fiscal crunch coming for two years. The camp-in, which lasted into the weekend and continues as of press time, is a last-ditch effort to reopen the funding spigot. Against the ropes, the organization is returning to tactics that have worked in the past: withering public pressure on leaders who control funding.
While SHARE contends it could no longer to afford to keep its shelters open, closing them has drawn some criticism.
The Seattle Human Services Department (HSD) has a contract with SHARE and its sister organization WHEEL this year in the amount of $610,932 for indoor shelter services. City leaders are not happy with the closure of most of SHARE’s indoor shelters. Deputy Director Jason Johnson says HSD learned of the impending shelter closures only a day before they occurred.
“We do not support the closure of their city shelters,” says Johnson. “The city is working very hard to do just the opposite, to get more people indoors. Any action to close shelter programs that we fund, especially for political or advocacy purposes, only puts the most vulnerable back onto the streets and takes away the opportunity for them to have a safe, warm indoor space with a roof over their head.”
Asked if he thought SHARE was playing politics with the closure of shelters for the needy, Johnson was unequivocal.
“I do,” he says. “It’s directly connected to a request they’re making to the county [for money].” E