In the wake of the presidential inauguration, the city must come to together to support hope, dignity, and community
By Clayton Aldern – January 20, 2017


SEATTLE, Wash. – For low-income housing and homelessness advocates, Inauguration Day is a day of uncertainty. With an incoming administration that’s had very little to say on homelessness and a Housing and Urban Development nominee with no experience in housing policy, federal signals are currently mystifying at best. In Seattle, advocates and service providers are preparing for the worst.

“None of us know what to expect,” says Kira Zylstra, assistant director of All Home, a Seattle-based housing task force that coordinates King County’s response to homelessness. In Seattle, an early 2016 count showed the homeless population had increased 19 percent over the previous year – and 32 percent over the previous two.

John Fox, director and coordinator of the low-income and homeless advocacy organization Seattle Displacement Coalition, echoes Zylstra’s uncertainty. “None of us really know where this is going to go,” he says. “The state of affairs is not good in Seattle, and the election of Trump is only cause for concern.”

But while he refers to the times ahead as “unknown territory,” Fox is quick to note “the systems that are in place to deliver these programs have been in place for a long time.”

Not counting on increases or innovations in federal support, Zylstra and Fox suggest that responses to homelessness by state, local, and community organizations could take on new importance this year.

One such organization is Immanuel Community Services (ICS), a community-based social services provider in Seattle’s Cascade neighborhood. ICS offers a suite of programs targeting the effects of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and addiction – including its flagship Hygiene Center, which offers a space for people experiencing homelessness to shower and wash their clothes on weekdays.

“We provide a barrier-free environment and meet every individual where they are at,” says Victor De Los Santos, executive director of ICS. “Very few of our clients have access to medical care, so our case manager brings services directly to them – including hepatitis C testing, a dental van, nurses, and soon, HIV testing.”

ICS also offers a community lunch on the last Sunday of every month, as well as a food bank on the last two Mondays, with support from the Immanuel Lutheran Church congregation, NW Harvest, Food Lifeline, and the Food Resource Network Federation. “At ICS, we really focus on providing an environment in which our clients feel safe and know that they won’t be judged,” says De Los Santos.

For ICS, shifting political power dynamics mean that community does indeed need to fill the gap. But preparing for the worst doesn’t preclude hope.

Linda Mitchell, communications director at Mary’s Place, a day center for homeless women and children, says the “recipe for success” is to be found in partnership. “We know that we can’t bring all of our homeless families inside alone,” she says. “We need the city, county, and state; we need the business and faith communities. We need developers and real-estate professionals to share buildings, professionals to share skills and wisdom, volunteers to share time – our entire community to bring home and help to solve this community issue.”

Groups like ICS and Mary’s Place offer much-needed services in a region where the numbers in need are only expected to grow. “Waiting lists for public housing are years long,” says Fox. “We’ve got some of the highest housing costs in the country. We can only expect homelessness to continue to accelerate here.”

In partnership with the Matt Talbot Center, ICS operates a recovery program and shelter for men who are homeless, many as a result of their addictions. The program currently supports up to 14 men – but if groups like ICS are to continue or expand their services, they’ll need more support from individual community members. For De Los Santos, though, that’s a good thing: It means fostering an understanding that individuals have the power to support community.

“There’s an affordable housing crisis,” says Zylstra. “We have to continue the fight at the state and local level.” Zylstra also cites advocacy partners like the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, and the Housing Development Consortium.

“It’s not business as usual,” says Fox. “The need’s going to grow.” And as it does, the people already doing the work are turning inward and doubling down.

“It’s all about the needs of the community as they define it as people who are out there seeking housing,” says Zylstra. “Our federal partners alone won’t be able to understand or identify the solutions without us, and we can’t identify the solutions without engaging people who are most impacted by what those solutions might be. That’s what dignity means to us.”

“As a community we need to focus on making sure that every human has their needs met,” says De Los Santos. “Everyone needs to step up and make sure that this happens.”