SEATTLE — For years, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has convened public officials and experts and done research on best practices for cities and counties to deal with a growing national homelessness crisis.
It is the only federal agency solely focused on preventing and ending homelessness, but has little power to implement policy or hand out funding. That has left cities and counties mostly on their own to respond to homelessness in the U.S.
Then, the pandemic brought with it an infusion of billions of dollars in federal funding specifically to address homelessness in the United States. Many cities have invested heavily in shelter and long-term housing. Some have also passed stricter anti-camping laws in hopes of reducing the number of people living outside, creating a patchwork of increased services and increased penalties across the country.
Jeff Olivet, a longtime consultant on race and social issues, became executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness during this time and visited King County while on a tour of the West Coast, a region where he says there have been “pretty dramatic, troubling increases” in homelessness.
He met with the Regional Homelessness Authority and public officials from Seattle and throughout King County, as well as visited encampments to “understand the crisis that’s going on in Seattle right now around unsheltered homelessness and lack of affordable housing.”
While in Seattle, Olivet spoke with Project Homeless about where the country’s homelessness crisis is at, and what can be done to abate it.
Where do you see the country is right now, in terms of the homelessness crisis? Specifically now, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, which crippled the homelessness response system and during which we saw much more visible homelessness around the country.
The pandemic has exacerbated, and in many ways laid bare structural problems that existed pre-pandemic. We already had a homelessness crisis prior to March 2020. People were living and dying on the streets, people were having huge barriers to access, affordable housing, behavioral health services, health care, economic mobility, and the public health impact of the last two years and the economic impact of the last two years has complicated all of the stuff that was already complicated to begin with. In many cities around the country, we see significant increases in homelessness, particularly unsheltered visible homelessness encampments in cities, that has certainly gotten worse in the last two years.
We see some communities that have actually been able to reduce inflow into homelessness. And we see maybe some of the eviction prevention resources playing a role in that. But we still see more visible homelessness. So the public perception is certainly that the problem is getting worse.
During the pandemic, we saw billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funds go specifically to homelessness. Local shelter systems moved from congregate shelters to hotel settings. Do you think that the pandemic has actually shifted the homelessness system long term?
The response during the pandemic has given us a glimpse into some new possibilities. It is now up to us whether we learn from those lessons and carry the good stuff forward into the future, or whether we go back to some things that weren’t working.
I think the noncongregate shelters, and particularly master leasing of motels and moving people very quickly inside and into more safe environments, this was about reducing spread of COVID initially, but it also lets you have a lock on the door so that you’re not in physical danger at night in danger of being raped or beat up or killed. I would love to see us learn from that.
I think another thing that we learned is that we can mobilize very quickly if we need to. We have huge capacity issues in the homelessness response. The workforce is tired. They’ve done an extraordinary job the last two years, but we continue to ask more of them. And wages are low and support is slim.
One shift we’re seeing now is heavy-on-enforcement approaches to homelessness in some places, using police to remove homeless encampments. Some cities are moving to criminalize encampments in public spaces. What do you think about this heavy-on-enforcement approach to homelessness?
We see a mix, we see some communities driving encampment strategies with a public safety mindset that’s very much law enforcement driven, criminalizes camping, the things that you talked about.
And we see other communities that are leading with public health and housing. And the ones that work are leading with public health and housing.
When you simply sweep encampments with no plan for where people are going to go, it doesn’t work. You haven’t addressed the underlying problem, so it pops up elsewhere. So you can sweep an encampment in one block, and people will reemerge five blocks later.
I do believe there is a way to address encampments. That is to treat people who are living there humanely [and] that creates a pathway to permanent housing, and still acknowledges the importance of having livable cities for all for everyone.
What do you see as the biggest barriers to addressing the homelessness crisis in the United States?
Housing affordability is a fundamental challenge. And until we address housing affordability in Seattle, and across King County and across the nation, we’re going to continue to struggle with homelessness. I think access to a range of health and social support is a real challenge, scaling those up, the financing of behavioral health care, and access to those services for people who don’t have a lot of money are real challenges that we still have to figure out.
How do you address the housing part of that? Where does it come from?
The pandemic has taught us that we can be very creative with existing properties, with motels that can be converted to permanent housing. I’d like us to look at underutilized commercial spaces and federal, state and local properties and see if we can do some conversions to a range of housing options for people in those.
I walk around downtown Seattle and I see a lot of empty buildings, and I think why do we have empty buildings and people sleeping outside? This doesn’t add up. Can we get more creative about zoning? Can we get more creative about housing finance, to utilize the assets that we have in a different way?
Your agency is going to be issuing a Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness later this year. What does that blueprint look like?
That blueprint not only addresses the current crisis we have right now in front of us, but it also ties that kind of emergency response work to permanent housing and long-term support for people to make that housing effective.
It also goes upstream to turn off the faucet. What we’ve not done a good job of is going upstream and preventing homelessness from happening. And what that requires, is very strong coordination across multiple systems. That’s not just the homelessness response system. That’s the health care system, child welfare and foster care, the criminal justice system, affordable housing more broadly
Is the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness calling for the federal government to increase funding and resources to build more housing, to make a more robust mental health system, to provide more services for addiction and substance use?
We have a lot of resources that are already in play that this administration has put into place. The administration is also calling for increases in the president’s [fiscal year 2023] budget to many of these programs.
As we all know, the federal appropriations process is a complicated one. It’s a politically fraught one and the nation faces a lot of competing priorities right now, additional COVID pandemic relief, a war in Ukraine that we’re navigating our national role in and our international role in and dealing with the crises on the homefront like homelessness.
I’m not naive enough to think that we’re all of a sudden going to have all of the resources that we need. What that means is that it’s not just the federal government that needs to step in here, we need the corporate sector and private philanthropy to step up in a big way on homelessness. We need local, city, county and state government to step up in a way that maybe they never have before. And we’re beginning to see localities and states do that. This is going to take everybody, the federal government has a strong role to play. But homelessness is a societal failure. And it’s going to take all dimensions of a society to fix it.
Are the homelessness policies of Seattle, as far as you’re seeing, aligning with USICH’s vision for homelessness policy?
I’d like to see continued improvement in the level of coordination here. I think that’s a key component. Seattle is a wealthy city, not just wealthy in terms of the tech money that’s here or wealthy residents. But the brainpower, the creativity, the immense compassion, that’s here, it is a community that ought to be poised to end this crisis. I think the need for greater coordination has never been more urgent than it is now.