Meeting Minutes from InspireSeattle Social on October 10, 2009

We had our seventh social event of 2009 at Sharon and Will s home.  We had a nice turnout with 25 guests.  Thanks so much to Will and Sharon for opening up their home!

Our next meeting Our next social will be Nov 7th and will address the development of genetically engineered foods.  Details upcoming stay tuned!



IAN (Inspire Activist Network) Salmon BBQ and Fundraiser for Dow Constantine we held a BBQ and fundraiser for Dow on Oct 3rd, raising nearly $1800.  Additional opportunities to show up and help support the true progressive candidate in the race for King County Executive abound please get involved!  Please contact Jared Jonson, Field Director, Dow Constantine for King County Executive, at or 206.434.1314.

inSPIRe Book Club! We are now reading Civil War Land in Bad Decline by William George Saunders for our Oct 18th (7PM) meet-up.  To join the book club and get on the list, just send an email to


Main discussion topic for this evening:  Homelessness in Seattle/King County

More than 8,000 people experience homelessness on any given night in the suburban cities, urban centers, and rural towns of King County.  Some nights, this number is far greater.  Our discussion this evening addressed this important and difficult issue.

We began the discussion by being entertained with a song, with Tim Harris singing Bruce Springsteen s The Ghost of Tom Joad.  Springsteen s lyrics begin with:

Men walkin' 'long the railroad tracks
Goin' someplace there's no goin' back
Highway patrol choppers comin' up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin' round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin' in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

As with many Springsteen songs, The Ghost of Tom Joad goes deep into American culture.  Springsteen wrote, and Tim sang

Now Tom said "Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I'll be there
Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me."

Yes, as we work towards justice in America, we frequently find ourselves searching for the ghost of Tom Joad.


First Speaker:  Bill Block, Project Director of the Committee to End Homelessness.

Bill Block is the Project Director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, which is the broad coalition of governments, faith communities, non-profits, private sector entities, philanthropic groups and homeless and formerly homeless people convened to implement the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County.  During his earlier career as a private attorney, he served pro bono as Chair of the Seattle Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, Chair of the Seattle Low Income Housing Levy Oversight Committee and President of AIDS Housing of Washington.  He currently serves as Chair of the Seattle Center Advisory Commission.

Bill was recently chatting with a friend who speaks English as a second language.  In this friend s first language, the term for homelessness means without a fixed abode , which really means do you have a place to center your life?

Each year those involved with fighting the issue of homelessness in King County do a one-night count of homeless people in the county.  The last count found:

  • 2,800 living on our streets
  • 2,500 living in shelters
  • 3,500 living in transitional housing

This adds to 8,800.  What the count did not account for are the people who have doubled-up , I.E., staying on a friends couch, etc.  Each year in our county, a far greater number of people experience homelessness then counted on any given night.

What does 8,800 sound like?  Bill gave us an example by slowly pouring 8,800 pellets into a bowl, a process that emphasized it s a bigger number than it may initially seem. 

Twenty percent of our homeless are under 18 years of age.  Many homeless experience some sort of mental illness.  Many have had criminal justice issues in the past.  These two things go together.  In fact, 30% of King County jail inmates are mentally ill and homeless.  A typical incarceration process is petty theft, such as stealing wine, arrest, evaluation for mental capacity to stand trial, frequently being ruled incapable, referral to an overloaded mental health program and then put back onto the streets, where the process begins all over again.

Seattle/King County residents do care about homelessness.  When polled, 84% of us indicated they believed we can do something about this problem.  Surprisingly, 24% of King County residents have had family members that have experienced homelessness.

The issue of homelessness is a hugely costly issue for our county, as well as for other communities across the country.  It typically costs taxpayers $50,000 per year for each homeless person on our streets.  This is a hugely expensive and inefficient way to deal with this problem.

The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County was developed to find better ways to solve the issue.  The committee that runs this plan includes many established, important and active community residents, including former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, current Mayor Greg Nickels, former King County Executive Ron Simms, etc.

Current county practices actually promote homelessness.  Homeless people are discharged from jail or hospitals without much hope for succeeding.  Felons are given 90 days to find a job and save both first and last month s rent and thus be able to secure housing or at least a roof over their heads.  But hardly anyone will hire a convicted felon.  Thus they end up on the streets, and frequently resort to petty crime to survive, and the cycle continues.  Foster kids are put out on their own at age 18 and told go survive .  This puts them in an incredibly difficult situation. 

The Ten Year Plan works to combine both housing and services.  It looks at housing as fundamental to security.  It tries to address the disproportional numbers of homeless minorities.  If Bill indicated he was working on the colored problem in our county , we would be outraged.  Yet, people of color are represented as homeless at a ratio of six to one, so this is arguably a legitimate, and tragic, description of the problem.  Bill discussed how easy it was to negatively stereotype people that are homeless, and stressed the more accurate term was people that are currently experiencing homelessness , emphasizing that being homeless should not be a brand on someone.

The Ten Year Plan has a goal to provide 9,500 additional housing units in the county, and currently has 3,900 in the pipeline.  He indicated that in Seattle about 30% of renters pay half of their income just to cover their rent. 

Bill discussed a success story in Seattle:  Project 1811 Eastlake.  This program works to get long-term alcoholics off the city streets.  They worked with some of what were considered to be our most difficult cases of homelessness.  Many believed that these chronic homeless wanted to live on the street , I.E., being homeless was their choice .  The results of Project 1811 proved otherwise.  The Project had space for 75 people and filled them with only 79 offers.  I.E., just about everyone offered a roof over their heads and a place to call home gladly accepted the offer and agreed to the rules of the program to keep their new home.  (Of the 4 that did not accept the offer, 2 had died.)  The cost to house the members of Project 1811 is far less than to incarcerate or hospitalize them, thus effectively providing tax relief to county residents.

Bill then discussed the Sound Families program.  This $40 million commitment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched this program to develop new housing with support services for homeless families, or families in danger of becoming homeless, in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties.  Through its partnership with seven area housing authorities and many local service providers, Sound Families succeeded in funding 1,445 new units of transitional housing that have served more than 2,700 children in nearly 1,500 families. Sound Families made its final round of grants in September 2007. 

The current recession has severely impacted many in our community.  Over 40,000 people have been cut off of state public health, while the recession drives up the need for public assistance. 


Second Speaker:  Tim Harris, Executive Director of Real Change.

Tim Harris is the founding Director of the Real Change homeless newspaper in Seattle, and has been active as a poor people s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded the Spare Change homeless newspaper in Boston in 1992 while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace, an organization that organized direct action style protests with homeless people while drawing connections to militarism and other misplaced federal budget priorities. Harris founded his first alternative newspaper, critical times, in 1984, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Prior to founding the Spare Change homeless newspaper, Harris edited Street Magazine and The Central America Reporter in Boston. He is a leader in the international streetpaper movement, and is a co-founder of the North American Street Newspaper Association.

Real Change is now 15 years old.  When the paper was founded, King County had 3,000 people on average experiencing homelessness.  Today that number has tripled.  Clearly things are not going in the right direction.  Tim provided critical feedback regarding the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, labeling it a Millennial Cult to point out that with the current results, it seems like it may take 1,000 years, not ten. 

Tim talked about the systematic breakdown in the US that has led to our current homelessness crisis.  He discussed the homeless crises during the Great Depression, with the creation of Hoovervilles.  Hoovervilles were essentially emptied with the beginning of World War II, when tens of thousands left them to join our armed forces.  After the war, the powers in charge of our country were faced with the potential crisis of thousands returning home, and not having a home.  To avoid the recreation of Hoovervilles across America, new initiatives were created to support the American GI, including the GI Bill, the Federal Housing Authority, and other actions that enhanced and grew America s middle class.  Tim described a coalition of American labor, government and business to work for the greater good in our country.  For thirty years progress was made and poverty in America was reduced as our middle class grew.  Until the 1970s homelessness was really a fringe problem in America.  Inequality did exist, and America certainly had issues with race, etc., but our homeless problem of the 1930s was resolved with policies Tim describes as being less towards greed and more towards benefiting the middle class . 

Then change happened.  Key advancements led to the continued decline of the American middle class, including the advent of the shipping container and the invention of the internet.  Tim s point was that certain advancements made it dramatically easier for companies to go find the cheapest source of labor around the world, which they eagerly did, and then shipped their products back to the US for sale.  We began to see the wealth inequality gap greatly expand through our country.  America s manufacturing base began to disappear, and with it disappeared high-paying manufacturing jobs.  Left were low-paying service jobs and a constantly reducing middle class.  This phenomenon is still largely unrecognized. 

Our US federal policies switched from building housing to building prisons.  The United States has become the world s greatest Gulag State , with a higher percent of America s population in prison than even in China.  With the growth of our prison system we ve seen destruction of our African American community.  This has been a sort of cultural genocide . 

We ve also seen a great shift in the American city.  In the 1950s through the 1980s, our more affluent residents fled for the suburbs, but in recent years there has been a re-inventing of America s cities, including Seattle, as centers of upscale cultural consumption.  Luxury downtown condos began springing up. 

Cities have the tax base needed to offer services to the poor.  So, inherent with this demographic shift comes a problem:  our city s new urban rich co-mingling with the urban poor.  Not surprisingly, the urban rich began to demand removal of their unsightly neighbors and local government policies began against the homeless, including sweeps of homeless campsites, laws against panhandling and other laws driven by upscale development.  Current Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels began a covert policy of monthly sweeps of homeless sites, using machetes to take down tents, throwing away possessions of the homeless and keeping them out when they returned and attempted to retrieve their items.  Tim and Real Change led a year-long fight against these sweeps. 

Today Seattle is experiencing significant economic challenges and the new urban condos are at a 20% vacancy rate with many bankruptcies.  This seems to be driving city officials to push even harder to remove barriers to the financial success of these projects.  Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess is pushing a new initiative to ban panhandling, as an example.  At the same time, officials are in denial regarding how bad things really are for our city s homeless.  The count of Vendors at Real Change has gone up dramatically, and Tim has seen a worsening of personal situations as well as greater desperation among his Vendors.  People are becoming far more damaged.  Our system is clearly broken.

Tim sees the solution not in the Ten Year Plan.  This plan is losing the battle against market forces.  The combining of government and philanthropy is not the solution.  What Tim sees as the solution is a true new social movement in America for real change.  Homelessness needs to be viewed as a moral outrage.  It is an example of a massive system failure.  The Ten Year Plan actually is working against solving the problem according to Tim, in that it gives officials an out , and excuse to claim hey, we re working on the problem and we have a plan .  It gives our community a false illusion and disguises what we really have:  repressive policies in the county.  It serves to blunt the needed moral outrage against homelessness.


Q Why don t officials focus more on the issue of mental illness with homelessness?

A (Bill)  Actually, the Ten Year Plan does focus on mental illness.  In fact, $70 million per year was brought into King County to fight this through the plan.  Two-thirds of community housing is based in treatment centers.  There is actually criticism of the Plan for focusing too much on mental illness in that this people are the highest cost to help. 


Q Does selling Real Change actually provide vendors a living wage?

A (Tim) Not at all.  Being a vendor is typically just a part of a homeless person s survival plan.  Up to 70% of the vendors have some sort of disability, from illiteracy, to being a former felon, to being elderly, having health problems, etc., that restricts them from getting and keeping a living wage job.  Being a Real Change vendor just helps them to cover some basics, such as food.  Other means are needed to fully survive, and sadly many of these are degrading and illegal.  The biggest item that Tim sees that his vendors get from their Real Change job is in the relationships they make while selling the paper.  In their daily talks with their customers, and potential customers, Seattleites discover that these homeless people do matter!   They are able to develop a network of customers and friends. 


Q Couldn t Real Change approach the Stranger and get them to charge a small fee for that newspaper and put the proceeds towards helping the homeless?

A (Tim)  Real Change tries to find a balance between the different models of street newspapers in the world.  In Europe, they are more mainstream and rely on advertising dollars.  In Canada they are more activist.  Real Change tries to be both.  The Stranger doesn t want to upset their own advertising base.


Q Why are we waiting ten years for a solution?  Why not implement a solution today?

A (Tim)  Pushing/organizing for economic justice must start at the bottom. 


Bill in Great Britain, housing is seen as a right.  A recent conversation with a homelessness activist in Edinburgh revealed that although they have a large number of homeless people, say 3,500 on any given night, only a very few (this person indicated six!) will actually be on the street at night.

Bill commented that with the typical person experiencing homelessness, hope and effort have been driven out of them.  They are typically very depressed.  The homeless are not the dangerous members of our society.  Our dangerous members are committing crimes allowing them to afford housing.  The reality of homelessness is that the door has been slammed in your face so many times that one doesn t expect it to open anymore. 

Final point:  people will pick what they view as the very best option that they think is open to them.  People won t pick the worst option.  Homeless people commonly don t see any other realistic options for themselves. 


Q What can we do as local activists to fight this terrible problem?
A Write Seattle City Council members and tell them to stop policies that discriminate against the homeless.  Write King County Council members as well as State Legislators and urge them to support funding for ending our homeless problem.  And stress to them to not avoid the revenue side of the equation, I.E., tax dollars are a key part of the solution.  Finally, vote YES on Proposition 1 this coming election!


As always, many, many questions were asked but not recorded.  Sorry!


Many thanks to all who participate in inSPIRe!


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Previous meeting minutes


Previous IAN Events


First Speaker, Bill Block


Second Speaker, Tim Harris



Many thanks to Sharon and Will for hosting!



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