IF ENDING homelessness in Seattle before the end of the Millennium (world?), were as simple as political sound bites make it seem, Paul Schell could have kept his June 21, 1998 promise to get all homeless women and kids off the streets by Christmas 1998. And there would have been no need for an anniversary rally on December 22, 1999, revisiting Schell's exaggerated claim.

As it is, the rally was an important reminder. Ending homelessness takes more than a ridiculous pledge from a mayor to wipe it out in time for Christmas. In a recent survey, Seattle/King County Coalition for the Homeless counted 908 people sleeping on the street, versus 784 in 1998. According to Alan Painter, spokesman for the Human Services Department, the King County estimate of 4,500 to 5,500 people per night who are homeless is probably closer to the 5,500 mark these days. Painter says there are approximately 2,500 shelter beds and 1,100 transitional beds available in King County at this time. That still leaves lots of people out in the cold every night.

"We should stop worrying about whether people are shitting on the sidewalk or sleeping in the parks, and deal with the real issues," said Erin Katz, Education Coordinator for the Homelessness Project, to a round of applause at the rally.

Schell's heroic quest to save women and children first may have rallied some money and boosted the mayor's public image, but his canned "win-win" tactic didn't do much to incite intelligent public discourse about homelessness. It's no wonder that the public thinks that homelessness can magically disappear, without comprehending how it is tied intimately to lack of housing, lack of living-wage jobs, mental health and chemical dependency, and domestic violence issues, among others.

About 60 homeless-rights supporters showed up at Mary Magdalene Church, listened to lefty singers and speakers, then politely marched over to the Municipal Building (which sports a friendly new "No Trespassing" sign on the front door) to lobby sympathetic council members for expanded services to the homeless. The rally was sponsored by First Things First, a coalition of homeless-service advocates.

Katz described the need for more affordable housing units for people making 50 percent of the median income range or less. (One housing advocate at the rally estimated that 1,000 units of affordable housing per year were being lost in Seattle.) Katz also advocated a no-turn-away policy for people seeking shelter -- she suggested tents, yurts, and self-managed shelters as possible alternatives to traditional shelters. Katz also called for more mental-health and chemical-dependency housing components, and emphasized the need to stop criminalizing homeless people with civil ordinances.

But advocates may have to look elsewhere to fund these important changes. The mayor has added only $698,000 to the 1999-2000 homeless-services budget, according to Painter. The money will continue to fund new shelters and women's shelters. Meanwhile, approximately $90,000 of next year's budget will be used to hire a consultant who will, among other things, be asked to develop a computer system to help the homeless have better access to services, and to track vital information about homeless people.

Schell also helped add 200 new shelter beds to the city roster since 1998, and has lobbied for millions in motel vouchers, as well as rent assistance for families with kids.

"The bottom line," claims Painter, "is that we've done a heck of a lot."

But vouchers and shelter beds are just one part of solving homelessness, which is affecting an ever-increasing sector of the U.S. population. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that 44 percent of homeless people have jobs, but can't afford a place to live.

Schell's overtures toward the homeless were also a far cry from the $10 million suggested in September 1998 by the City of Seattle's Homeless Advisory Group to begin to address the root causes of homelessness. Painter explains that Schell has increased block grant dollars available for homeless services from $8 million to $10 million during his term.

Shelters and motel vouchers are a great crisis response, and homeless advocates want to maintain them as a first-line offensive. But much more is needed in a public climate where homelessness is not a sexy topic. So advocates marched down to city hall, where they tried to lobby council members.

After the December 22 rally, homeless advocates met with council members Peter Steinbrueck, Nick Licata, and Richard McIver. Advocates had also scheduled an appointment with Richard Conlin, who was unavailable. Licata responded to advocates with a proposal to organize a winter roundtable between developers and homeless advocates to address affordable housing issues.

Licata seemed to be coaxing advocates to expand their campaign beyond city hall to the corporate and public sector. He explained how a pie chart he had recently seen showed that only 10 percent of the wealth in Seattle was concentrated in local government. The other 90 percent was in private funds.

Katz is aware that long-term solutions are not going to come exclusively from city funding, but she believes that the mayor and city council members could help find more creative ways to leverage public funds. She also admits that advocates need to try new tactics to regain public interest in homelessness.

"Homelessness is a hard sell right now," concludes Katz. "The public thinks, 'hey, the economy is great, so it must be the homeless person's fault.'"

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