For two decades, now, Anitra Freeman has stood in silent vigil whenever a homeless person in King County has died outside. As a member of the grassroots homeless women’s group WHEEL and their project Women in Black, Freeman believes that “without shelter, people die,” she said, repeating the group’s mantra during a Thursday interview with Seattle Weekly. WHEEL and its partner organization SHARE seek to remedy that through their 15 indoor shelters and three tent cities.
But this year Freeman said she’s stood in silence a record number of times and she’s “sick of the deaths.” According to King County Medical Examiner’s Office data gathered by WHEEL, 88 homeless people have died in King County as of November 26—a third more than in previous years around that time. The group is already planning another vigil for next Wednesday; Freeman projects that at least 100 people will have died by the end of the year.
On Wednesday afternoon, Women in Black was joined by members of the Housing for All Coalition outside of the Seattle Justice Center at 5th and Cherry to acknowledge the latest death. About 20 people mostly wearing black and holding pink signs bearing the group’s mantra stood in silence for an hour on the center’s steps. Wednesday’s vigil was especially difficult for Freeman in the wake of a recent announcement from the city’s Human Services Department (HSD) that funding would be cut for at least 300 shelter beds, as well as hygiene and support services in 2018. She mourned the loss of funding for SHARE/WHEEL, which is on the chopping blocks for next year. The groups ended their vigil by presenting Deputy Mayor for External Relations Shefali Ranganathan and Seattle City Councilmembers with a letter that requested interim funding for the programs. It also suggested that the city divert money from sweeps of unsanctioned encampments to fund homeless services.
The cuts were part of the City’s recent redistribution of the $34 million for homeless service providers announced on November 27. To meet its goal of doubling the number of homeless people who move into permanent housing from about 3000 households in 2017 to more than 7000 in 2018, the City chose to scale back funding for basic shelter beds that officials say have shown little to no evidence of helping people make that transition. It also increased investments by $5.5 million in permanent housing programs like rapid rehousing, which offers temporary rental assistance to homeless people.
But Housing for All Coalition member and Transit Riders Union spokesperson Katie Wilson argues that rapid rehousing won’t benefit the majority of homeless people.
“We know that with such a hot housing market and such low vacancy rates and high rent, that it’s going to be very unlikely that the vast majority of homeless people are going to make it by themselves in market rate housing for a short period of time,” Wilson said.
The redistribution of funding comes at a time when a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report declared that King County has the third largest homelessness population in the country. The federal report released on December 6 also showed that King County has the second largest concentration of veterans experiencing homelessness behind only Los Angeles County.
Seattle declared a state of emergency in 2015, when, according to the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, 10,047 people were experiencing homelessness. Yet the homeless population appears to have grown despite the city’s efforts to address the crisis by creating additional shelter beds. Over 11,600 people were homeless countywide in January, according to All Home’s annual point-in-time count released in May.
The rising numbers of homelessness led the city to reconsider how it will fund homeless services in 2018.
“HSD is supporting overnight shelter beds that have shown some success at moving clients to housing,” HSD spokesperson Meg Olberding said in an email to Seattle Weekly about its reason for cutting SHARE/WHEEL funding. “With finite resources and a commitment to housing placements, we have made the decision to invest in those programs which are the most effective in helping clients find housing,” she clarified.
According to spokesperson Stephanie Formas, Mayor Jenny Durkan is also supportive of a housing-first approach.
“Mayor Durkan is committed to moving people out of encampments and off our streets—this is why she’s proposed creating more shelter to provide safer, healthier alternatives living outside for those experiencing homelessness,” Formas said in an email to Seattle Weekly. “One of her first actions as Mayor was to meet with advocates to find ways to site and permit more micro-homes and announce a regional approach to homelessness to better coordinate services and ultimately move more people off the streets and into permanent housing,” she added.
Olberding maintained that the department will not reduce shelter beds during the coldest months. The department created a transition plan for programs like SHARE/WHEEL that didn’t receive contracts with the city “so that clients and providers have time to adjust,” Olberding said.
SHARE shelters will receive about $200,000 in bridge funding, while WHEEL’s low-barrier women’s shelter at Trinity Episcopal Parish will have $100,000, said WHEEL organizer Michele Marchand. Freeman anticipates that the funding will help the shelters continue running until July at the latest, after which the organizations will apply for funding from alternative sources.
Freeman continues to see the shelters as a necessary part of the solution. She said it is SHARE/WHEEL that helped her transition into permanent housing after her own homelessness stint.
Prior to being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Freeman became homeless in 1995 following a yearlong bout of depression. She spent a night sleeping at the airport, then one in the bushes, and later at an all-night coffee shop until she landed in a SHARE/WHEEL shelter for four months. Once Freeman was diagnosed, she became medicated and has now been housed for 21 years.
“Staying involved and all of the relationships in the community that I’ve built up … is one of the major things that’s kept me stable,” Freeman said about her continued relationship with SHARE/WHEEL.
She added that she ultimately hopes that the city will consider funding the groups again.
“We really hope that the city comes to its senses,” Freeman said. “They’ve got to find a new source of funding and add to what they’ve got, not take away in order to do something new.”