No home for the holidays

The mayor's promise to the homeless goes largely unfulfilled.

SIX MONTHS AGO, Mayor Paul Schell promised to get indigent women and children off the street by Christmas. Now, as the deadline approaches, shelter providers say they've seen little change in the homelessness scenario. Providers at first were startled and pleased by Schell's promise—unprecedented in the city's history—but now say he hasn't delivered enough money to keep it. The $500,000 allocated by the mayor is only one-tenth of what activists estimate it would take to provide emergency shelter to all who need it.

Part of the problem is the way the money is being spent: on a Salvation Army rent subsidy program for families facing temporary crisis and a Family Services/Traveler's Aid program that rents motel rooms for recently displaced people while they get back on their feet, rather than on the chronically homeless. About 200 families—some never homeless to begin with—have used these programs since Schell's July pledge. Mayoral spokeswoman Vivian Phillips says the mayor's intent was to keep low-income families in their houses and apartments rather than build more shelters to house them indefinitely.

The city's decision to emphasize motel vouchers is controversial. The accommodations are not the safest for young children—two preteen sisters, in fact, disappeared from one of the main voucher motels, the Crest on Aurora Avenue, in 1996, their bones turning up in a Bothell field last summer. "I have families calling me and crying about these places," says Kory Wilder, who runs a shelter at the East Cherry Street YMCA. Parents sometimes complain to her that while they're out looking for work, peddlers and other suspicious strangers pester their children back at the motel. (A spokesperson for the Crest, on the other hand, accuses the families themselves of rowdiness and troublemaking.)

Sandy Lowe, vice president of Family Services, wouldn't confirm that Traveler's Aid places people in the Crest (other charities also give vouchers), but she stresses that caseworkers choose carefully which motels to include in the program. She admits that a motel is not an ideal place even for adults, let alone children, to live. Her program is only meant to serve families who are on their way towards self-sufficiency. "[This isn't] a food bank . . . that isn't the type of program we do," she explains. "You have to commit to being stabilized."

It is hard, though, to measure the extent of a client's commitment. Lowe says that only 22 percent of Traveler's Aid's clients using vouchers manage to find permanent housing through her program. While she cannot account for the fate of the other 78 percent, she believes that most wind up homeless—an indication that Schell's money is not being well spent.

ABOUT 2,000 Seattleites call streets or shelters home. An estimated quarter of them are children. While applauding the city's contribution to emergency rent subsidies, activists point out that the mayor's new efforts fail to reach these chronically homeless families. Moreover, the YWCA's Wilder says, the mayor's money likely does little good for the families it currently targets; taking care of children and finding sustainable employment during a three-week motel stint or 28-day shelter stay is virtually impossible, particularly in families coping with alcoholism or mental illness. As for those most in need, Wilder has seen the number of families she's had to turn down for shelter rise steadily since the mayor made his (in)famous commitment.

Understandably, though, the city is reluctant to address the needs of chronically homeless families without knowing how many there are. The mayor has directedsocial workers to coordinate the tracking of families as they move from service to service. Current estimates are tainted by duplicated data—a child might be counted five times, for example, depending on how many shelters she's stayed in during one year—and lawmakers don't want to fund a problem of unknown size.

Homeless advocate John Fox insists that the city could build all the shelters it needs with a small portion of next year's projected $20 million revenue increase, which comes partly from newly raised property taxes. City officials counter that the money is reserved for neighborhood planning projects and for cops, firefighters, and other fundamental expenses. In 1999, Seattle will spend only a few hundred thousand dollars more than this year on human services. "We may not be making it, but at least we tried," sighs mayoral spokesperson Phillips, defending her boss' pledge as an unprecedented standard for a Seattle mayor to set.

If recent memory serves, she's right. And though the mayor's grasp of the average homeless family's predicament is murky at best, he did make strides in increasing services for homeless women. His efforts have secured a new 25-bed shelter that may soon add 15 more slots, and there's an additional 25 beds in the works at a different location. But in a city where overflowing shelters and cash-strapped services for families must be selective about whom they serve, homeless children are still at the mercy of their luckless parents. When Santa comes to town this year, several hundred tots on his list will be trying to sleep on the streets or in shelters—as they did, in similar numbers, in the years before Schell's pledge.

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