July/August Presidents Message

By Rick Sepler, AICP
We may put those who are unsheltered out of sight...but we should never put them out of mind.

My community, like so many in Washington State, is currently facing a dramatic increase in unsheltered individuals and families. These increases reflect rapidly rising housing costs and a general shortage of affordable housing. With forecast growth that by 2040 could see Washington’s population grow from 7.4M to 10.7M, it is unlikely (and unfortunate) that homelessness will be fully addressed in the near term. For those in our profession, the conclusion is clear: it will take political will and a focused and sustained effort to get traction and regain ground lost in housing.

However, while many in our field are dedicatedly pursuing infill development, new housing types and inclusionary and incentive-based regulatory mechanism, many of our communities seem more concerned with removing and relocating those who are unsheltered from public streets and spaces. Of less concern seems to be where they go afterward.

On a local level, it seems that we may be equally split as a community on this issue: half of our residents want to find a way of providing needed housing and services while the other half wishes to put those who are unsheltered into jail, on a bus out of town, or out of sight by any means possible. This split appears predicated on assumptions that those who are unsheltered are either unfortunate victims of circumstances or suffer from self-inflicted challenges. As you can imagine, the "unfortunate circumstances" half support the many on-going efforts to provide housing while the "self-inflicted challenges" half see those without shelter as "takers" and quickly write off the need for any action except incarceration. (Interestingly, this latter half often advance the "Magnet" or "Mecca Theory" which argues that providing services will attract more homeless people to a locality, thus worsening the problem. This Theory is uniformly undercut by actual Point-in-time[1] counts which consistently show that the last address for over two-thirds of those unsheltered was in the subject jurisdiction or County. While homeless people may move from surrounding suburbs and small towns into central cities where services are located, no data collected to date shows that social services cause major relocations between urban areas).

Perhaps more troubling is the general response of communities to the establishment of shelters or transitional housing facilities. While we may agree on a policy basis that we need such facilities, without exception that support appears to erode when a specific neighborhood, commercial/industrial area or public facility is proposed as a site. A reoccurring concern voiced is that the mere presence of unsheltered individuals, (regardless of on-site case and facility management, the demographics of shelter or encampment residents and other mitigating conditions) presents a threat to public safety.

Having been directly involved in trying to locate a shelter for the past two years, it appears that there aren't any controversy-free sites available. To minimize objections, our search has to lead us to increasingly remote and even inhospitable locations. As our site-selection process responds to neighborhood objections, we are by default further separating those who are unsheltered from the balance of the community. That perhaps may be the most insidious outcome of acquiescing to perceived concerns - if we as a community don’t see those who are unsheltered, we can avoid facing the core issues associated with the problem. Yet what people experiencing homelessness often need most is help re-building relationships and re-integrating into the general community.

The AICP Code of Ethics tells us that as Certified Planners we have a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged. Consistent with that charge, it is imperative that planners continue to advocate and advance solutions that meet identified needs while keeping their communities aware of the gravity and extent of the challenge we face in regards to housing.

We are a profession predicated on doing what is best for our communities. In this case, we need to help our communities to keep their focus on the issue.

[1] The Point-in-Time (PIT) count is a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night in January. HUD requires that Continuums of Care conduct an annual count of homeless persons who are sheltered in emergency shelter, transitional housing, and Safe Havens on a single night.

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