By Colleen Echohawk and Tricia Raikes

With a contentious election season finally behind us in Seattle and King County, it’s time to clear the air. No issue in our community is as controversial or as urgent as our growing homelessness crisis, but the truth is that people on every side of the debate want to live in a thriving community where everyone has a safe place to call home.

Our challenge is that we all have different ideas about how to get there. But we must be honest: the “us” vs. “them” approach hasn’t brought our neighbors inside. We need to set aside the blame and take real steps together toward a community where we see each other’s humanity, where everyone has a stable home and all our neighborhoods are thriving.

The stakes couldn’t be higher: Recent estimates indicate that 221 people died while living unsheltered in Seattle in 2021. Almost half of adults who are experiencing chronic homelessness in King County first experienced it as a young person. We are failing to keep our young people, and our community, safe.

We have to confront these difficult realities. By now, most people recognize the complexity of homelessness. But addressing its root causes requires both focusing on immediate solutions and deeper systems changes.

Let’s talk about the immediate needs.

No one should be forced to live in parks or on sidewalks. To solve this problem, it’s important for us to try and understand why people might stay in a park rather than accept an offer of shelter. Choosing to live in most shelters often means abandoning partners, pets, privacy and possessions. It can also mean facing violence, theft and exposure to illness. The reality is our current shelter system is woefully unprepared to address these concerns.

The good news is the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) has zeroed in on the need to modernize our outdated shelter and outreach system, and build connected pathways from the street to permanent housing. Additionally, the KCRHA has identified the urgent need to better compensate our front-line homelessness workers, many of whom are only one paycheck away from homelessness themselves. We have made some progress, but there is much more we need to do.

Identifying the issues is one step forward, but these initial steps are not enough. It is imperative that Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, King County Executive Dow Constantine, the mayors of the Sound Cities, and elected legislators throughout King County work together to support the KCRHA in implementing a different, more humane response to homelessness. In doing so, it’s crucial to take a careful look at societal and systemic inequities at the center of the homelessness crisis.

Our country’s homelessness crisis is rooted decades of failed housing policy, a grossly insufficient health care system, rising inequality, and decreasing social mobility, all which sit on a foundation of systemic racism. This is visible in the disproportionate impact of homelessness on communities of color. The majority of those experiencing homelessness in King County identify as people of color, with Black and American Indian/Alaskan Native communities the most overrepresented in our homelessness system. If we fail to recognize and respond to this reality, we will be unable to solve it.

We must also make big fixes to the systems that push people into homelessness — including the behavioral health, child welfare and criminal legal systems — which often fail to protect our most vulnerable. We have to prioritize investments in affordable housing, change zoning laws that have their roots in redlining, and support common-sense protections for tenants to ensure that housing is accessible to people of all incomes.

All of this is possible. To make progress, we need diverse, collaborative leaders across government, nonprofits, business and philanthropy working together. We need to embrace the KCRHA as the essential step toward countywide collaboration that we’ve needed for years. Homelessness is not a problem with borders, and we all must work side by side to solve this problem.

But most importantly, we need to find a way to see the humanity in each other and in our neighbors experiencing homelessness. If we commit to bravely taking steps together, we can make our community one where everyone has a safe place to call home. 

Colleen Echohawk is the Interim CEO at YouthCare, former CEO at Chief Seattle Club and one of the Seattle Met Magazine’s Most Influential People in Seattle.

Tricia Raikes is the co-founder of the Raikes Foundation with her husband, Jeff. The foundation works toward a just and inclusive society where all young people have the support they need to reach their full potential and also works to increase the effectiveness of philanthropic giving through its Impact-Driven Philanthropy Initiative.

Read the op-ed on The Seattle Times