The fact that the city has remained in a homelessness state of emergency for over five years now is "unbelievable," said Colleen Echohawk, mayoral candidate and executive director of the nonprofit Chief Seattle Club.
She blamed the city's situation on "a lack of leadership and political will," and said she's running for mayor partly because she believes she can finally solve the crisis.
The pandemic laid bare how drastic Seattle's homelessness crisis has become. Last year, congregate shelters limited their capacity to comply with COVID-19 guidance, and people with nowhere else to go set up their lives outdoors. The problem of people sleeping outside is only expected to get worse when the eviction moratorium lifts at the end of June, when thousands of tenants who owe months of rent stand to lose their homes. Whoever takes over Mayor Jenny Durkan's seat will need to present a vision for how to house people in Seattle.
Echohawk said she has the experience, the plan, and the "ability to build relationships" to "get it done."
During her tenure at the Chief Seattle Club, Echohawk oversaw the development of SoDo's Eagle Village, a transitional housing facility for chronically homeless indigenous people. She is also involved in developing new affordable housing projects that will open later this year—80 units in Pioneer Square and 125 units in Lake City. (To help bring even more housing online, she said she's "100% behind" exploring options to reconsider single-family-only zoning laws.)
But how will her roots in the nonprofit organizational industrial complex, where you've got to shmooze and be nice to get money and make things happen, impact Echohawk as a politician? She rejected that categorization. "I come from the Native community," she said, "We've been very much left out from that nonprofit world, and we’ve had to scrap and fight for every dollar we get." Echohawk described her experience in the nonprofit world as an asset that exposed her to all the "bureaucratic barriers and gatekeeping" that she'd like to dismantle.
"I think we need to have an all-of-the-above approach" to tackling homelessness Echohawk said. She listed off several ideas, such as creating RV trailer campgrounds and safe parking lots for vehicle dwellers.
She also said the city should expand the JustCARE program, a partnership between Chief Seattle Club, the Public Defender Association, REACH, and the Asian Counseling and Referral Service that houses homeless people in hotels. Expanding JustCARE would mean leasing more hotel rooms to use as shelter space, and even buying hotels to use as shelters in the short-term. In the long-term, those hotels could be turned into affordable housing units. Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Kshama Sawant attempted to pass a budget measure last year to buy a hotel in Seattle for that purpose, but it didn't pass.
Right now Mayor Jenny Durkan is falling short on her promise to house people in hotel rooms and in 24-hour shelter beds. According to PubliCola, Durkan won't ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reimburse the City for shelter hoteling fees because she said FEMA won't cover it. The Seattle City Council argued that FEMA, under a new Joe Biden policy, will cover those fees, and pointed to other West Coast cities who are getting their hotel-shelter bills covered that way already. Durkan is still "side-stepping" the hoteling issue, according to PubliCola.
Echohawk told the Seattle Times she was "outraged" Durkan wasn't asking FEMA for 100% reimbursement. Echohawk's mayoral race competition, Council President Lorena Gonzalez, also made a firm statement against Durkan's unwillingness to pursue leasing more hotel rooms for shelter.
To pay for more hoteling, RV campgrounds, safe lots, and other ideas, Echohawk said she'll work with the Biden administration. When asked about whether she'd pursue progressive revenue options, such as Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda's JumpStart Seattle payroll tax, which partially funds new affordable housing development, Echohawk said, "[My idea] could look something like JumpStart… but it could look like other things, too."
"I don’t know exactly what it will look like yet," Echohawk said about implementing a new progressive revenue option, "I want to have the opportunity to partner, to invite people, into this vision and give community and business the opportunity to work together."
Big businesses in Seattle have not exactly been big fans of city-led progressive revenue ideas.
Echohawk also wants to see a "regional approach" to homelessness, where all the cities in King County work together to "collaborate" on the issue.
The Regional Homelessness Authority that consists of Seattle and King County and suburban Sound cities is attempting to do that. However, the suburbs have excluded themselves from paying into a King County sales tax to create permanent supportive housing. The KCRHA also just appointed its CEO six months behind schedule after the first pick for the job turned it down. Echohawk said she looks forward to "being a part of that and working with these stakeholders and... building those relationships."
One thing that will stay dead under an Echohawk administration is the Navigation Team. Echohawk rejects the city's strategy of sweeping homeless encampments and shooing vulnerable people from one place to another. Last year, the city council cut funding for the Navigation Team in the budget, but former interim-Mayor Tim Burgess is introducing a ballot measure that would bring back homeless sweeps.
"I’m dumbfounded we continue to think that works," Echohawk said. "It’s inhumane, it's not taking care of the real issue, and it's just a waste of money and energy. I look forward to the opportunity to create effective solutions."
Currently, Echohawk is outpacing the mayoral candidate pack in campaign contributions, with over 1,400 individual contributions totaling $104,402. She was the first candidate to qualify for the Democracy Voucher program. Architect Andrew Grant Houston, former state rep. Jessyn Ferrell, and Gonzalez have all qualified for the program now.