There is no one person in charge of King County’s growing homelessness problem, but Mark Putnam came the closest.
He was executive director of All Home, the countywide coordinating board that succeeded the now-defunct Committee to End Homelessness. When Putnam left last month, he critiqued that model and recommended “consolidating authority” over the crisis.
Putnam has worked on Seattle-area homelessness problems for 20 years, and left All Home last month for a new post at the Accelerator YMCA, the county’s largest housing provider for young adults.
The Seattle Times Project Homeless had a few questions on his way out the door. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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What do people get wrong about homelessness?
The biggest thing continues to be that it’s completely an individual failure and there are no systemic reasons for the growth in homelessness. Those are harder to see, harder to write about, harder to communicate about. They also get at people’s underlying beliefs – that, Republican or Democrat, whether people believe there should be a welfare system or not. It’s the scab rather than the cancer, the thing you see … It’s not always an individual failure. It’s what has happened in their lives, and it’s what has happened in society.
There has always been homelessness in King County but, since 2014, the number of unsheltered homeless people has spiked, more than doubling. Why is that?
The spike on the charts is very similar to the spike in rents. It’s the same line. When rents were declining, there was the same level of unsheltered homelessness, from 2008 to 2012 or so. I don’t think it’s the only thing, but I think it’s the thing that pushes people over the edge, that rise in rent.
You have pushed back on the idea that Seattle’s homeless services have a magnet effect. Explain how you see this question of a magnet effect.
I do think we have a magnet effect within (King) County. We have most of our services in Seattle, and therefore we have most of our unsheltered homelessness in Seattle. When Bellevue or Federal Way says, “We don’t want to become the next Seattle,” I don’t think the solution is to not have the services.
I think they … know that Seattle will backfill. I also think it’s the responsibility of the major metro area in a community like ours, but Seattle is so small and condensed geographically that it can’t really handle it. And it’s not really fair.
You’re talking about within King County, but on the broader question of the magnet effect, are homeless people from elsewhere drawn here?
I’d be interested in seeing how recently all Seattle residents have come to this community, and where they came from, and what they were earning, and why they came … Seattle has always been a place since the Gold Rush where people came for jobs. Alaskan fishing jobs are still a thing for a lot of single men, coming here and thinking they can get employment.
I talk with families from Arizona and Georgia coming here because they hear there is opportunity here. I don’t hear that, somehow, people in Atlanta know Seattle has a good soup kitchen, or something. It’s possible.
When we asked, 5 percent – 50 out of 1,100 people – said they came here homeless and because of the services. That’s self-reporting, and it was a homeless person asking a homeless person.
As far as I can tell, there isn’t a real plan to deal with vehicle camping, especially RVs. Why has that been such a hard issue to deal with?
We need to do better by that population, for sure. Our general approach has been twofold: a lot of service providers are targeting their outreach – and the city is telling them to – at tents …
Secondly. I don’t believe the city of Seattle, through their RFP (Seattle last year rebid $34 million in homeless services contract), received an application from an agency saying we want to do that work, with the 40 percent of the unsheltered population living in cars. I don’t know why that is.
That’s not a full excuse for why we’re not responding better to people living in cars. We need to do better and figure something out.
Currently, oversight of homeless services is split among King County, Seattle and All Home, with no single person or agency in charge. Can you give me an example of how the structure was a problem?
There was a meeting maybe nine months ago, and I had started talking with (a consulting firm) about recruitment of a business partner (to find more private landlords willing to accept public vouchers).
By the time I had scheduled a meeting with them and talked with the city and the county, 12 different people from the city and county needed to be there, because they all had different pieces of the pie. So we show up to this business consulting firm with 12 of us. They were like, “I’m confused. Who is in charge of this?” I think they were like, “What the hell?”
You were as close as there is to a homeless czar in King County.
And most people understood there was a limit to what my responsibilities were. They were not as deep as that term implies. And definitely my partners at the city and county understood that, and they were doing their own things. We worked well together because I like them and they like me, and we made it work … But it needs to be institutional, not relationships. I think that (Seattle Mayor Jenny) Durkan understands that, and I think (King County Executive) Dow Constantine does, too.
What would a different structure look like?
I think the best-case scenario is something that looks like the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health. That department director is responsible for all things public health, and she reports to both the mayor and county executive. That’s how they’ve done it in Portland as well.
It’s not the solution to homelessness; it’s not going to solve everything. It would just put in place a structure that people will know who is accountable and will drive toward results, delegate and everyone knows who is making a decision.
What do you think of tiny houses for people who are homeless?
If they don’t have heating, plumbing and insulation, they’re a bad idea. I also don’t like the campground (model), the chain-link fence around a gravel lot, and 50 of them. I don’t think that’s sustainable. I wish we were putting more effort into the backyard-cottage stuff … (that) is integrating them into communities, because that’s how people will get up and out. The size of the house is not a big deal. To me, it’s more about segregating them. They look like internment camps.
To me, it feels like a slippery slope. All our federal and national partners tell us they’re really worried about what is happening on the West Coast with these tiny houses, and politicians are going to look at the budget and see they could count more units of people getting into housing that way.
All Home set a goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2015, ending veterans homelessness by 2017, and ending youth and family homelessness by 2020. The first two milestones haven’t been hit. Why should we believe the next milestone is going to be hit?
Certainly, in veterans homelessness, there has been progress. But no one has been able to sustain it. Salt Lake City is a good example where there’s been huge progress in housing all these chronically homeless adults – buying up hotels and converting them to housing, convincing the governor and rural communities that they need to do that. It’s seen as a huge victory.
But in Salt Lake City, the last mayor lost her election because of the rise in chronic and street homelessness in downtown. And they declared veterans homelessness a victory, but the (Salt Lake) Tribune went out and found all these veterans who are homeless on the street. I don’t think everyone has really done it.
I think a lot of communities have made huge progress, and more progress than us. But most of the time, the conditions have been right for it – the housing market, the (Department of Veterans Affairs) made huge investments, and a lot of communities get close to zero. There has not been a similar investment around chronic homelessness.
Why does the homeless-response system keep setting very clear, ambitious goals and then fail, and then set new goals? Isn’t that setting up false expectations?
(King County Department of Community and Human Services director) Adrienne (Quinn) has made the analogy with climate change – the county is not being asked to end global warming, but we’re being asked to end homelessness, which also has multiple, national factors at play that are really outside the control of one of the thousands of counties in the United States …
But even under (President Barack) Obama, (the federal government) wasn’t providing new resources. I think everyone at the local level has felt it is unfair for the federal government that isn’t doing its part to encourage mayors’ challenges, and local responses and local taxes, when there hasn’t been much movement beyond treading water with our federal funding for decades.
What did you feel like you learned about homelessness in the past four years?
The causes of homelessness are far more complex than I even knew. I probably learned the most from people who were experiencing homelessness, getting to know them and why it happened. Sometimes it’s a new episode of substance abuse, sometimes it’s something else.
I had a friend reach out to me … I had gone to high school with him, and he was homeless on Bainbridge. He had a job where he’d gotten really ill as a result of it, and the medical bills, and the recovery, and (not) being able to work full time again had just been this spiral he’d been in a few years. At that time he had a friend who said he could no longer rent for $400 a month an apartment over the garage and he had to go. He was too prideful to tell his friends he had nowhere else to go …
He went and lived in his car, and stayed at a KOA campground. He was homeless for most of 2016. That’s an anecdotal story of that thing happening to him on his job, but it’s also an institutional thing – he didn’t have insurance on the job that should’ve covered all this. That’s a broken-system thing.