Fencing off The Jungle will not help our homelessness crisis

March 7th, 2016

The growing crisis of homelessness in our region is larger than the reach of a single solution, implementation of a single strategy, or responsibility of a single elected official or human-services provider. It’s a shared crisis rooted in interrelated problems of poverty, addiction and mental illness. It is larger than a single city, region or state.

I applaud Gov. Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine, Mayor Ed Murray, and my colleagues on the Seattle City Council and our allies in Olympia for working on an array of efforts to address homelessness in a way that is smart, humane and focused on both short- and long-term gains.

What we know is that there is no perfect policy or solution. But we also know some tools work better than others to ease the individual, family and community impacts of homelessness. What works are efforts to treat addiction, increase mental-health services, transition people into various available alternative housing options, provide immediate assistance to families and children, and improve security and sanitation at temporary shelters and tent cities.

What doesn’t work are fences and barriers.

Make no mistake, The Jungle along Interstate 5 is a deplorable setting that must be addressed. For decades, it has been a too-conveniently overlooked area of state land along a federal highway bordering Beacon Hill, a neighborhood that lacks the political power of other more affluent parts of our city.

Now is the time to address The Jungle. But our first proposed solution to a decades-old problem should not be, “Build a fence around it.”

I believe erecting an 8,000-foot fence topped with razor wire to simply try and prevent access to the area is wrong for several reasons. Furthermore, these shortcomings indeed can be illustrated by the equally ill-conceived and equally crime-ridden fence currently along parts of the U.S.-Mexican border.

First, fences can be cut, dug under and breached. Daily we see stories of human and drug trafficking along the U.S. border — and that is a fence line patrolled constantly, at a cost of tens of millions to taxpayers.

Second, if people — through habit, addiction or necessity — believe The Jungle to be their haven, human-services experts believe they would return to the area, possibly with even worse safety outcomes. This is also true of the U.S. border fence, where the barrier creates an artificial magnet for crime and tragedy, not a deterrent.

To draw this connection is not an attempt to draw local leaders into a debate over failed immigration policy, but a reminder of the unintended human consequences of these policies. Just like the problems in The Jungle are decades old, so too are the failures of our immigration policy. These are inherited crises that require new ideas and new leadership to make real progress.

[…]

This op-ed originally appeared in The Seattle Times. Click here to read the entire piece.

 

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Tackling the Homelessness Crisis & Public Safety

January 29th, 2016

One Night Count 2016

I never expected this job to be easy, I don’t think anyone does. This week has proven especially challenging as an elected official, as an advocate for the underrepresented and, frankly, as a fellow resident. Last night, I joined 1,000 volunteers in the Seattle-King County One Night Count organized by the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness.

From 2 am to 5 am, we spread out across Seattle to count our neighbors who are sleeping outside.  My staff and I were assigned to the Duwamish Greenbelt near South Park.  My experience in last night’s One Night Count further underscored what our city has known for some time: we are in a state of human emergency.

Listen to my real-time reaction to last night’s count here.

What I saw last night as I weaved through overgrown briar bushes and marshland wasn’t drug paraphernalia, lawlessness or wanton behavior. I saw children’s clothes, food containers, feminine hygiene products, clotheslines, gardens, makeshift recycling, people sleeping in their cars, and a shirt laid out to wear but hastily abandoned. I saw occupied and recently abandoned campsites and structures.  I saw the face of struggle but I also saw profound human resilience and strength.

Last year we saw a 20% increase in the number of unsheltered people and I am saddened to learn that last night’s count revealed an additional 19% increase. In spite of investing nearly $50 million towards homeless programs and resources, we are facing the harsh reality of a 39% increase in the number of unsheltered people living in greenbelts and in plain view in just two years. These faces and numbers paint a deeper picture of the human story behind the crisis:

2016 One Night Count Infographic

These numbers tell us, in no uncertain terms, that what we are collectively doing isn’t working. The City and County’s declaration of a state of emergency presents a unique opportunity for all of us to rethink our approach.

The homelessness crisis we are facing is dynamic, with different underlying root causes unique to each person who is experiencing homelessness.  I am ready to ask the tough questions and find answers to ensure that no Seattle resident is abandoned by the leadership of this city in their time of greatest need.  I hope you will join me in this conversation and that you will do so not only with compassion but with a sincere interest in being my partner in advocating for evidence-based strategies that have a meaningful impact in making homelessness a one-time brief experience.

Our First Gender Equity, Safe Communities and New Americans Committee Meeting
Safe Communities (formerly known as Public Safety)

Wednesday morning at 9:30 am was my first committee meeting as the Chair of GESCNA. As most of you are aware, Tuesday evening 5 people were shot at an unsanctioned homeless encampment. As the chair of Safe Communities, the incident weighed heavy on my mind and heart. Gun violence remains prevalent in much of our city, regardless of circumstance. Seattle Police Department Chief Kathleen O’Toole attended my committee meeting to give us a special update on the investigation, which is active and ongoing. You can view her update as well as the full meeting here.

In addition to the Chief’s update regarding the shooting, she was attending the meeting along with Brian Maxey (SPD Chief Operating Officer) and Ben Noble (Director, City of Seattle Budget Office) to present finding regarding SPD’s emergency 911 response times. While the data was not positive and indicated a significant gap between actual response times and reported response time, I am grateful to the Chief and her department for their transparency and commitment to solving this issue. Data indicates that under Chief O’Toole’s tenure, response times are improving and will continue to improve as the department innovates new ways to create officer and public safety resources around the city. Materials from that presentation can be found here.

New Americans

We also heard from Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Director Cuc Vu. Ms. Vu briefed the committee about the challenges faced by immigrant and refugee communities in our city as well as the legislative and budgetary priorities of that department for 2016. That presentation can also be found here.

Our Proposed Work Plan for 2016

Lastly, our central staff committee coordinator, Amy Tsai, presented the 2016 proposed GESCNA work plan. This was a “30,000 foot view” of what our committee responsibilities are and what we hope to achieve this year. If you’d like to tell us what you think we should be working on, email us! If you would like to know what falls into GESCNA and what we will be tackling in 2016, Ms. Tsai’s presentation is a great resource. Find it, along with the other presentations, here.

This is not the most cheery of updates, I know. However, this is our challenge as law makers and city leaders. As a city-wide elected official it is my duty to tackle these largest and most pervasive of issues and I remain optimistic about our ability to do so.

Yours in Service,

lorenaSig

Lorena signature

*Data provided by WA State Dept. of Commerce.

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Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy: The Continued Civil Rights Movement

January 19th, 2016

Yesterday communities across the country, including here in Seattle, came together to celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every year, in the days leading up to “MLK Day”, we hear speeches on the radio, TV and in our schools and churches about how far we’ve come in the struggle for equity. It’s true, gone are the days of segregated lunch counters, busses and drinking fountains. And gone are the days of lynching, fire hosing and honoring of old Jim Crow laws. In many ways, the Civil Rights Movement was a success.

But let me stop you for a moment and ask you this: What are civil rights? For me, civil rights are laws and policies that weave together our unified principles and commitment to ensuring that all people have unfettered access to opportunity regardless of the color of your skin. That is why, as a civil rights attorney, I advocated for the passage of new and the protection of old civil rights.

Dr. King gave his life for civil rights in 1968. While I hope that Dr. King would be proud of how far we’ve come in this struggle for equity, I also believe that we are not there yet. Indeed, as we embark on a presidential election that will replace America’s first black President, we are faced with an attack on voting rights and a national rhetoric of hate and fear. In many ways, the insidious discrimination that Dr. King and thousands more fought against has changed its face.

For example, the top-polling Republican presidential candidate unapologetically proclaimed that all Mexican immigrants, like my parents, are rapists and drug dealers. He is now advocating that America should turn her back on Muslim refugees fleeing from the tyrannical rule of terrorists. We also see the lack of equity in policing, which has given birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. When we learn that a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man during a traffic stop, we roll back civil rights. When we learn that police officers choked and killed an unarmed black man selling cigarettes on a sidewalk, we roll back civil rights. These incidents, even if not criminally sanctioned, are an assault on the legacy that Dr. King left to us to protect.

Yes, we’ve come a long way. We are no longer fighting against overt segregation and discrimination. Today, we are fighting something much harder to root out. We are fighting a sometimes quiet bias, sometimes buried so deep that those who carry it, don’t know that they do.

How do we fight this invisible enemy? By using those very tools that Dr. King gave us half a century ago. Tools like funding education, fighting income inequality and protecting our right to vote. When we empower ourselves with our vote and elect leaders committed to equity, we all win. When we enact policies that create opportunity for children in every home in our city, we all win. When we legislate to protect working families, we all win. Only when leaders in Seattle and beyond choose to deliberately create equity in every policy matter that comes before us, will we see the legacy of Dr. King appropriately honored.

I believe we can get there in my lifetime. Today, more families have access to healthcare in our country than ever before. Today, more women are entering the workforce with college degrees than men. Today, the City of Seattle is in the initial stages of enacting universal preschool. Today, we have a majority female Seattle City Council, with the first Latina Councilmember and the first enrolled Native American Councilmember.

In closing, I quote our President who this past week in his final State of the Union Address stated, “America has been through big changes before … Each time there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change; who promised to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the ‘dogmas of the quiet past.’ Instead we thought anew, and acted anew.”

It is a new year. Let’s take this moment to recommit ourselves to the legacy of Dr. King not just on one day but every day.

Yours in service,

lorenaSig

Councilmember M. Lorena González
Seattle City Council, Position 9 (Citywide)
Chair – Gender Equity, Safe Communities & New Americans
Vice-Chair – Education, Governance & Equity

Email: Lorena.Gonzalez@seattle.gov
Phone: (206) 684-8802
www.seattle.gov/council/gonzalez

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Debriefing on Block 21: Where land use and labor intersect – and where they don’t.

January 11th, 2016

Today, the Seattle City Council faced a difficult vote. We voted to grant the Block 21 Alley Vacation to Amazon, Inc., with an amendment regarding free speech protections on the property, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Burgess, Herbold and myself. Normally, an alley vacation is not a particularly controversial decision; it’s a part of the lifecycle of an urban center like Seattle. Further, there is an arduous process in place for developers seeking a vacation, with public hearings, approval from several departments as well as a vote by the Seattle City Council. This process is in place to ensure that we do not take the ceding of public land lightly or without significant public benefit. And we do not.

In this case, however, we faced a tough choice. On the one hand, the developer, Amazon, has followed all the steps of the application process correctly and appropriately. The public benefit, public revenue, design approval and voluntary support of the free speech amendment we proposed were all at or above the standards the city has set. However, there is one glaring issue. The security contractor used by Amazon, Security Industry Specialists, Inc. (SIS) has a long and difficult history, in this city and in others, of violating worker’s rights. Naturally, as a former civil rights attorney, this was extremely concerning to me, as well as many of my colleagues.

Why then, you might ask, would we vote to approve this alley vacation? The short answer is this: because a land use vote is not the place to have this discussion. Not legally, not correctly and not in a way that ensures a victory. I am extremely concerned about the claims being made by the employees of this Amazon subcontractor. However, I respect that there is a process here that we, as city councilmembers, are responsible for following.

Below, please see the letter that I have sent to Amazon’s Director of Global Real Estate and Facilities, John Schoettler. I urge him to be a good neighbor to this city and to act on the moral imperative that comes with corporate leadership on this scale. As the child of migrant farmworkers and a former former migrant farmworker myself, there is nothing I take more seriously than claims of worker mistreatment.

Read the Letter
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