On March 31st, the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), King County's largest shelter provider, closed their indoor shelter network and set up camp outside the King County Administration Building. With operating costs rising and their county funding cut entirely last year, SHARE is over $70,000 in debt. Without new funding, they can't reopen.
When I visited the camp on April 7th with other members of the Transit Riders Union (TRU), the plaza was filled to capacity with mats and tents. The TRU has worked in coalition with SHARE for the past three years. I have nothing but respect for their overworked, minimum-wage staff and for the hundreds of homeless people who live in and run SHARE's shelters and tent encampments. They do immensely difficult and valuable work with scant resources, and they persist in the face of ignorance, malice, and the endless crises and conflicts that result from lack of stable funding. They persist because they believe in their work, and their persistence has created a sometimes messy but beautiful and remarkable community of the forgotten.
SHARE's model is about shelter and survival. It is about empowering people through democracy and self-management. SHARE gives hundreds of homeless people a safe alternative to the streets, and many use this stability as a springboard to jobs and housing–although SHARE's focus, much to the consternation of the political and non-profit establishment, is not on tracking those results.
The Seattle Times' most recent callous and irresponsible hatchet job amounts to demanding that SHARE abandon their vision and adopt a fundamentally different model–one that is much more expensive, and that would not work for many of the people who thrive at SHARE. Even as the Times acknowledges that SHARE operates “at a cost that is a fraction of other government-funded shelter beds,” they urge Seattle and King County to resist SHARE's call for adequate funding and parrot baseless accusations of “sketchy financial management”.
SHARE has one enormous problem: underfunding. Demonizing SHARE also conveniently distracts from the fundamental issue.
The overwhelming reason why homeless people do not find homes is not a lack of case managers. It is a lack of affordable housing. Whatever one feels about the adequacy of Seattle's plans to address the affordable housing crisis, significant relief for low-income renters is years away.
In the meantime, over 4,500 are sleeping rough in King County and homeless deaths are at an all-time high. To keep people safe and alive and off the streets, what is needed is shelter. SHARE is providing shelter, they are doing it on the cheap and in a way that has proved life-changing for many disenfranchised and disillusioned people. If King County is really serious about addressing our homelessness state of emergency, they should be making every effort to support SHARE's work.
That brings me to the issue of bus tickets. In 2015 SHARE spent over $136,000 to purchase bus tickets from King County Metro so that their members can travel to and from the shelters and tent cities. This isn't only for the benefit of the homeless; it is part of SHARE's contract with their church hosts that people don't hang around the neighborhood during the day. But there are never enough tickets.
This isn't just SHARE's problem, it's a problem for many of the 138 social service organizations that purchased over 1.4 million bus tickets from King County Metro last year. For example, Chris Langeler, the Executive Director of West Seattle Helpline, explains that although they got more tickets this year than last year, they still have to ration them carefully: “Many members of our community are struggling to afford bus fare for work, medical appointments, job interviews, or to access other resources and meet basic needs.”
This is artificial scarcity, and it can be easily fixed. Social service organizations currently purchase the tickets for twenty cents on the dollar–for a single-ride ticket with a face value of $2.50, that's $0.50. Even with this discount it's a large expense for cash-strapped non-profits, and most don't have the money to purchase enough tickets to meet the needs of the people they serve. King County also limits the number of tickets that can be sold in a year, so many organizations don't get all they apply for.
King County should allow organizations to purchase more tickets at a lower cost. For the most part, the people who use bus tickets are not going to be paying their fare when they don't have tickets—they are going to be riding without paying, or not riding at all. By making tickets cheaper and more plentiful, Metro will not lose significant revenue.
The dramatic rise in homelessness and near-homelessness warrants this policy change. With thousands of King County residents losing their food stamps right now, we don't need to be squeezing more pennies out of the desperately poor. We need to be making sure that everyone can get to the places they need to go to sustain and improve their lives. And we need to be funding the organizations that help by giving people a safe place to sleep. It's time for King County to fund SHARE and reduce the price of bus tickets.
Katie Wilson is the general secretary of Transit Riders Union.