Sleepless and Homeless in Seattle
Rising home prices leads to a homeless crisis and suburbanite righteousness
There’s talk of turning a nearby hotel into transitional housing for the homeless. Everyone agrees the county needs to address the homeless crisis, but they never imagined the solution would impact them. What is it about people that makes them reluctant to share their space with those who have been displaced and disgraced?
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GET OFF MY LAWN
I joke that Bellevue – once a sleepy Seattle suburb – will one day become the Manhattan to Seattle’s Brooklyn. If real estate prices are an indicator, it’s already happened. The median price of a Bellevue home is now $1.56 million compared to Manhattan’s $1.25. It’s even greater than San Francisco’s median price of $1.33 million. But San Fran’s own wealthy suburb, Sunnyvale, has a median price of $1.69 million which some believe will be eclipsed by Bellevue by the end of this summer.
The population in western Washington’s Puget Sound region has grown exponentially in the last 60 years – from 1.5 million people in 1960 to 4.3 million in 2020. King County, which includes, among others, Seattle, Bellevue, and Kirkland, is just one of five counties in the country to add more than 300,000 people in the last ten years.
These two factors, record high home values and exponential population growth, has created a housing and homelessness crisis. King County estimates “about 40,800 people in 2020 and 45,300 people in 2019 experienced homelessness at some point in the year.”1 It prompted the creation of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Their “mission is to significantly decrease the incidence of homelessness throughout King County, using equity and social justice principles.”2 The organization is led by Marc Dones.
Dones recently spoke at a U.S. Congressional hearing on “Addressing Challenges in Serving People Experiencing Homelessness.” Dones talked about how prior investments “have been over focused on service systems” and not on actually housing the homeless. They said, “it simply doesn’t matter how many social workers attend to a person’s needs…if we don’t have anywhere for them to go.”
“homelessness disproportionately impacts people of color as a direct result of this country’s history of racialized exclusion from housing. While Black people represent only 12% of the general population, we routinely make up 30 – 40% (or more) of the homelessness population. Native people, who make up only 1% of the general population, often make up 3 – 6% of the population experiencing homelessness.”
“Homelessness is an economic issue. It’s about not having the money to pay the rent.”, Dones said. It’s long been a problem, but Dones is calling for the county to respond as if it is a crisis. They recommend acquiring and repurposing hotels and motels. Dones says, “it’s critical to double down on supporting communities to engage in this work now, to rapidly online housing and shelter options that can bring people inside.”
One such acquisition the county is considering is a La Quinta Inn that sits right on the border of Kirkland and Bellevue. It’s conveniently located near a major highway onramp to Seattle, close to a transit hub, and has easy access to bike paths. But it’s also next to a handful of daycares, private schools, and affluent, predominantly White, neighborhoods.
It’s rumored one of the La Quinta employees leaked the news the county was considering the purchase. The Kirkland City Manager was forced to issue a public statement ahead of the typical public review process. As you might imagine, it exploded. Parents of children who’s kids attend nearby schools became terrified of the thought of homeless people being housed next to their kids. Area residents fumed over what this might do to their neighborhoods and home values. Over 3,000 people signed a petition opposing the purchase. Others expressed gratitude that the county was finally acting on the crisis and applauded Kirkland’s willingness to work with the county on making this location a success.
Most of the public comment I witnessed dwelled on drug use, gun violence, and sex offenders. These are legitimate concerns grounded in real fear that are not to be diminished. Alcoholism, domestic violence, and sex abuse can all increase the risk of becoming homeless, but they can also be introduced and perpetuated because of homelessness. People can also turn to alcohol and drugs in the lead up to loosing a job or a home. Substance abuse can become a means of numbing the pains of living on the street. The bodily discomfort of sleeping on the ground, the mental anguish that comes with being ignored or shamed by society, and the physical and cognitive stress that comes with increased vulnerability to crime and violence would make anyone seek comfort from drugs or alcohol.
Meanwhile, one 2021 study reveals how “homeless youths frequently engage in survival sex as a means to get their basic needs met…The literature suggests that coercion, economic necessity, substance use, and having friends and peers involved in survival sex are key factors...”3 The researcher concludes that solutions should not only focus on getting these youth trauma-informed care and treatments for substance abuse, but also jobs and to “help secure transitional or stable housing.”
It's what leads Marc Dones to stress,
“The reality is that every day we allow someone to experience homelessness, the harder it will be for us to connect them with the resources they need.”
Homelessness in America increased notably in the early 80s. In 1983 there was a sudden and dramatic increase in homelessness after the 1981-82 recession. It resulted in the formation of the Emergency Food and Shelter Program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It specifically calls for "sensitivity to the transition from temporary shelter to permanent homes and attention to the specialized needs of homeless individuals with mental and physical disabilities and illness and to facilitate access for homeless individuals to other sources of services and benefits."
Long time Urban Institute researcher Martha Burt was asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the program in the early 80s. She said it was too convenient to blame the recession alone for this increase. Others pointed to the Reagan administration policies that cut funding for social services and mental healthcare facilities that were more abundant in the 1970s. But she resisted attempts to pin causes on any one single factor. She said,
“The causes of homelessness include structural factors, personal factors, and public policy. Most important, homelessness is associated with poverty and the accompanying inability to afford housing…”4
She found the housing problem fell into two buckets: One, some cities simply have a housing shortage. Two, those with sufficient housing have units that are too expensive. Those who can’t make rent or mortgage payments typically exhibit physical, mental, addictive, educational, or social disabilities and deficits. This makes them more vulnerable than the rest of the population. She found this to be a “failure of social and mental health support programs, and the absence of any coordinated efforts that include government housing resources.”5
After 40 years of continually increasing homelessness, King County is finally trying heed her advice and are coordinating efforts with city governments and private parties to provide government housing resources. We may actually be on a path to bringing relief to victims of homelessness – to our King County neighbors who are suffering and vulnerable. So why are so many Kirkland and nearby Bellevue residents insistent on casting themselves as suburban victims of a government that is attempting to solve an urban problem everyone admits we have?
Is it because these people believe their suburban space is being invaded by what they perceive to be strictly urban problems? The homeless and homelessness are both undesirable elements of society that many see as an urban problem. Modern suburbia was invented as a place nearby desirable urban resources but detached from ugly urban realities. But it wasn’t always that way.
The word suburb comes from Latin: sub- ‘near to’ + urb ‘city’. Early suburbs were areas outside the walls of cities that hemmed in the privileged and weeded out those engaged in undesirable, polluting, dangerous, and agricultural pursuits. By 17th century England, especially around London, the suburbs were considered “inferior, debased, and licentious”. A suburban sinner was slang for “loose woman, prostitute.”6 In 1613 Shakespeare wrote, “There’s a trim rabble let in, are all these your faithfull friends o’ th’ Suburbs?”7
In the United States suburbs began appearing in the 1820s as ‘borderlands’. Then by 1850 they became picturesque enclaves in response to the ill-effects of the industrial age. That prompted the expansion and development of rural land connected by rail called ‘streetcar buildouts’ in 1870. Then came Sears and Roebuck ‘mail-order’ homes that resulted in ‘self-built’ suburbs starting in 1900. By 1940 mass-produced ‘sitcom’ suburbs emerged which were accelerated by freeway and highway expansion. This allowed for faster commuting in private vehicles from developments far from urban cores creating the ‘edge nodes’ of the 1960s. And by the 1980s suburbs stretched into the ‘rural fringes’.8
Each of these periods of suburban development were catalyzed by responses to the conditions the previous periods created. Each sought to escape the other. The last three periods of which were aided by federal subsidies like the home mortgage interest deduction. But these schemes locked out poor people and especially people of color and other ethnic and religious minorities. Meanwhile, local governments and private developers created restrictive zoning laws and covenants that dictated what kind of homes could be built and who could live in them. Those unqualified were confined to urban regions and systematically blocked from living in the suburbs. The effects are alive today.
Black home ownership in the Puget Sound has declined from 36% in 2000 to 30% today. Even in once segregated areas of Seattle Black home ownership is down as increasing housing prices force them further from the area. But there are only so many places they can go.
In 1990, in response to ever expanding suburban developments in the ‘rural fringes’, the state passed a Growth Management Act that curtailed further conversion of rural land into yet another suburb. As the population increases in an area restricted spatially, it puts pressure on building more housing on existing land. But zoning laws in single family neighborhoods restrict duplexes, triplexes, or even small apartments and condos from being built. As a result, problems once contained to urban areas, like homelessness, spill over into these neighborhoods and surrounding suburban areas.
When Seattle created their first suburb, they annexed a remote area around an algae plumed lake called Green Lake. Some Seattle residents fumed that officials would waste resources on such a remote area. Meanwhile, others were eager to escape an increasingly bustling Seattle for a shiny new suburb to the north. No one today would recognize or regard Green Lake as a suburb. Most Green Lake home owners would scoff at the accusation they live in a suburb! But they’re also scoffing at their homeless neighbors residing in the tents pitched in the popular park that surrounds it. A plight they could have never imagined.
Nor could residents of Bellevue and Kirkland imagine transitional homeless accommodations in their backyards. Many chose to live in the suburbs because they feared aspects of city life, like the homeless. Some of those same people also fear those who look, pray, or act different from them. They bristle at the thought of them becoming ‘their’ neighbors, frequenting ‘their’ stores, and walking ‘their’ sidewalks. Choosing to live nearby the city also meant living apart from ‘those’ people. They thought, “Give me my space, because this is my place.”
This distinction between space and place is vague practically and linguistically. Space requires context and can shift in granularity from a place on a shelf to my place in the universe. But for the purpose of this essay, let’s stick to the dictionary of geography. It offers a space-oriented definition of place that says they are spaces “’organized into places often thought of as bounded settings in which social relations and identity are constituted’”.9
These relations and identities are shaped over time. Kirkland and Bellevue, as prime examples, were created as White suburbs of Seattle especially after the timber, steel, and coal industries dried up. But even housing for these workers were segregated. It’s now unlawful to segregate suburbs, but zoning restrictions and property values still create ‘bounded settings’ that indirectly create and maintain certain ‘social relations and identity’ found in that definition of ‘place’. A place that historically and still predominantly centers on exclusionary White culture – a culture currently being challenged by undeniable shifting demographics.
The Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan says places are “archives of fond memories.” “’To know the place’”, he says, “’is to know the past.’”10 The Canadian geographer Edward Relph says places are “’the present expressions of past experiences and events and of hopes for the future.’”11 Tuan says, “’it is only the repetition of experiences that turn[s] space into place.’”
This repetition enhances memories that also serve a spatial cognitive function – orientation and navigation. Our memory forms cognitive maps that not only organize and arrange components of the environment in our mind, but also the ordered pattern in which they come together to get us from point A to B. These relative locational assignments of places are triggered by memories and help cement these divisions between urban and suburban spaces. For suburban dwellers, homeless encampments become physical geographic landmarks ‘over there’ relative to ’here’. That space is their place over there and this space is my place over here.
An uncomfortable interaction with a homeless person in a specific geographical location can form a memory that gets cataloged as a landmark. These experiences give meaning to places. We want to be distanced from locations formed by negative experiences while seeking safety, security, and comfort in places shaped by positive experiences. In the book, Sense of Place, Fritz Steele writes,
“’place is created by the setting combined with what the person brings to it. In other words, to some degree, we create our own places; they do not exist independently of us.’”12
LANDING IN A PEACEFUL PLACE
The geographer’s John Agnew and James Duncan highlight “three major elements of place:
locale, where the social relations are constituted;
location, which is the geographic areas…that frame the localized social actions and networks;
and sense of place, which is defined as the ‘local structure of feeling.’”13
One of the ways to structure feelings of place is by shaping the social relations of a given locale. One way to do this is for local governments to pass ordinances that shape the environment through law. It’s what the geographer Susan Massey calls “politicized space” and it’s what redlining, racially restrictive covenants, and rigged home mortgage agreements were all about.
The Civil Rights Law of 1964 makes it illegal to create such outwardly biased laws and legal agreements. But intentional and unintentional biases still exists. To help make progress on more equitable housing, the state of Washington signed into a law last year a provision requiring cities to eliminate barriers that could provide emergency or transitional housing. It also requires by law that cities incorporate solutions to affordable housing in their city’s comprehensive plans.
But local politicians and staff intent on perpetuating a certain “culture of place” find creative ways to do so. Medina appears to be once such city. Medina is a sleepy little wooded enclave abutting Lake Washington just west of downtown Bellevue. It’s home to some of the region’s super-wealthy, including Bill Gates. The median price for a home in Medina is $7.15 million.
On Valentine’s Day last week, the city of Medina issued a memo that included draft revisions to some of their zoning ordinances in response to the new state law. While they can’t outright restrict attempts to build transitional or affordable housing, they can limit them. It’s still debatable as to whether this language will be deemed too restrictive. One proposal says “permanent supportive and transitional housing facilities are permitted”, but under certain conditions.
The list of conditions is long but here are a few,
The number of “standard dwelling units” on a given piece of land must be limited…presumably to one given the strict single family home zoning laws.
The units cannot exceed a maximum of “eight residents at any one time, plus up to four resident staff.”
Facilities must be a “24-hour a day facility where rooms or units are assigned to specific residents for the duration of their stay” with a minimum stay of 72 hours.
Meals, laundry, and social programs “are limited to the residents and not available for drop in use by non-residents.”
No facilities “may be located within half a mile of another” facility “calculated as a radius from the property lines of the site.”
I can’t help but imagine small high-security pseudo prisons as I read these restrictions. But on the positive side, it’s a start. And a big step for a city like Medina.
I don’t know who’s crafting these words but I can imagine they’re keen to uphold a certain suburban nostalgia of an idyllic, bucolic, and affluent reserve. But let’s not forget this is a plot of land stolen from Indigenous people, raped of old growth forest for timber, tilled to grow crops for Seattleites, and then carved up by developers to build a golf course and fancy homes a short distance across the lake from the Emerald City. An itty bitty bit of pretty nearby but distant from the nitty-gritty city.
In the Handbook of Behavioral and Cognitive Geography, Pragya Agarwal, summarizes that,
“Place is inherently spatial. However place is not static, and time cannot be detached from place.” She adds, “Not only is time associated with change in the physical aspects of place, but also the meanings of place are variable and dynamic…”14
The separation of place and space is inherently vague and ever changing. We are all experiencing morphing societal normality, increasing population reality, forcing an adaptation of our spatial capacity. Our emotions are informed by our experiences, shaped by the interactions we have with people and place. As Herb Simon says,
“The apparent complexity of our behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which we find ourselves.”
It's true nobody dreamed the Kirkland La Quinta would become a single occupancy transitional home to hundreds of victims of homelessness. But then again, nobody born into this world dreams of becoming homeless. For all of us to get comfortable, we should consider the patterns of suburban sprawl and recognize there is no escaping the complex and bitter realities that surround us.
It’s the yearning to escape that these nearby places take shape. But suburban formation breeds urban damnation. Spatial attempts to avoid distress, leads to contempt of places of homelessness. Let’s drop the pretense and nostalgic purity, and gift our neighbors with housing security.
Integrating Data to Better Measure Homelessness: The King County Department of Community and Human Services, performance measurement and evaluation. King County. December 2021.
Over the Edge: The Growth of Homelessness in the 1980s. Martha M. Burt. 1992.
Suburbs in transition: new approaches to suburban history. McManus and Ethington. 2007.
Handbook of Behavioral and Cognitive Geography. Daniel R. Montello. 2018