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Seattle mayor to move quickly to house more homeless

UPDATED: Wed., May 30, 2018

A resident walks past a row of tiny houses at a homeless encampment Nov. 9, 2017, in Seattle where full size homes stand behind. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
A resident walks past a row of tiny houses at a homeless encampment Nov. 9, 2017, in Seattle where full size homes stand behind. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Phuong Le Associated Press

SEATTLE – Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said Wednesday she wants to get hundreds more homeless people into tiny houses, emergency shelters and other safe housing over the next 90 days.

Durkan unveiled details of a plan that would use $6.3 million from the recent sale of city property to provide temporary housing for 522 additional people each night, roughly a 25 percent increase. Currently, the city operates about 2,032 shelter beds, which are near capacity each night.

The mayor, who took office last November, said the short-term plan will get people out of “horrible conditions” but it’s only one part of larger effort that includes more permanent housing as well as mental health and addiction treatment.

“The permanent solution is to build more affordable housing,” she said at a press conference. “But we need more humane, more safe places for people to live and be so we don’t have tents on our streets, garbage in our thoroughfares and needles in places.”

Durkan’s plan comes two weeks after she signed into a law a hotly debated tax on large businesses to pay for additional homeless services and low-income housing over five years.

The new employee-hours tax will begin in January and raise an additional $48 million annually.

A coalition of businesses is collecting signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot to repeal the tax. The No Tax on Jobs campaign has received more than $350,000 in pledges of support from Amazon, Starbucks, Kroger, Albertsons and others.

Since declaring a civil emergency on homelessness in 2015, this booming, affluent city has been struggling to respond to increasing numbers of people living on the streets, in cars and shelters.

Seattle has authorized new homeless encampments, expanded shelter beds and opened a 24-hour homeless shelter that is open to all, even those struggling with addiction. Still, the region had the third-highest number of homeless people in the U.S. and saw 169 homeless deaths last year.

Durkan said her plan, which needs City Council approval, would represent the largest increase in shelter beds that the city has had.

The plan would create new tiny home villages, add beds at current shelters including at City Hall and temporarily use vacant building to house dozens more.

The mayor spoke Wednesday from the city’s newest homeless encampment in Seattle’s Crown Hill neighborhood, where freshly painted tiny homes, about 120 square feet (11.15 square meters), were ready for new tenants to move in. Each wooden structure is equipped with electrical outlets and a heater; a separate building will house a kitchen and showers.

Erika Nagy, who lives a few blocks from the encampment, questioned the mayor about security, staffing and costs. Nagy said in an interview later that she’s concerned about crime, how the city is spending tens of millions of dollars and whether people are getting into permanent housing.

The city spent $68 million in 2017 on homelessness and plans to spend $78 million this year.

Charmaine Min, who works full-time and currently lives in a similar tiny house village, said having a roof over her head, a place to put her things and a door to lock behind her gave her peace of mind, and allowed her to feel like a member of the community again.

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